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Lives in the Landscape

Posted On February 21, 2018 | 10:53 am | by baileyt | Permalink
Kaja Tally-Schumacher rediscovers Roman gardens

Kaja Tally-Schumacher, a PhD candidate in Art and Archaeology at Cornell University, was a junior fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies in the fall of 2017. Her research report, “Cultivating Empire: Transplanting and Translating Rome,” looked at Roman gardens in the first centuries BCE and CE, and the interactions between newly imported plants and gardeners both enslaved and free.

Q&A with Kaja Tally-Schumacher

In your talk, you described new methods of studying the makeup of ancient gardens—analyzing pollen that was trapped in plaster thousands of years ago, for instance. What are these methods helping us learn about the gardens?

Up until fairly recently, we’ve had to rely on literary descriptions and archaeological excavations to understand these gardens. In comparison to excavations of structures, green spaces have been largely unexplored, so that we’re working with a much smaller sample. Now, the garden excavations have been hugely important: we’ve found cavities marking plant locations, planting pots, impressions left by statuary bases or statues themselves, walking paths, water features, altars, and so on—we’re able to understand and differentiate between different types of gardens. But one thing that’s remained elusive until now is being able to actually identify the plants.

Pollen analysis taken from fresco plaster, however, lets us identify specific plants that are either in the garden or in the surrounding areas. A lot of pioneering work has been done with carbonized remains and pollen samples taken from soil, but pollen preservation isn’t always great in soil, and there’s a possibility of modern contamination. When pollen gets trapped in plaster, you often get better results.

Tree pollen can carry greater distances, so when you look at plaster samples you’re not just getting what’s in the garden, but also what was in the surrounding area, and that can open up whole new discussions. For example, fresco fragments were analyzed at King Herod’s palace in Caesarea, where hazelnut pollen was found, but hazelnut trees aren’t native to the region. The dating suggests that these came in the first century BCE from Rome, but from there it leads to a lot of different questions about trade networks and possible commercial relationships. Why are these plants being moved around? Is it related to political associations, changes in diet, something else? So some of these techniques really foster new lines of investigation.


Part of your work centers on “placing slaves back into the landscape,” to use your words. Are you using more material evidence, or documentary evidence for this?

My project unites both types of evidence. In terms of the literary evidence, it’s interesting that even in the grammar of how the ancient sources talk about slaves, using the passive voice, it denies them personhood and agency, and really makes the slave a prosthetic—that word encapsulates the idea powerfully. But we need to remember these sources are written by free men, generally for an audience of free men. So it’s interesting to place literary descriptions alongside other types of evidence: funerary inscriptions describing tombs commissioned by or for gardeners, as well as the spaces created by these gardeners and laborers. Elite gardens in the first centuries BCE and CE are largely the result of a new influx of imported, foreign plants. These came from a variety of different climates, and would have required large amounts of care. In some cases, like date palms, the plants could be transplanted but couldn’t be cultivated to produce fruit. So by identifying the types of plants and their needs, we can work backwards and identify the work of gardeners and laborers, and maybe discover actions that were hugely important to the success of the plant and the establishment of a garden, but that may not have been described in the literary sources.


How are some of these older texts and ideas you talked about seen now, especially in light of modern theoretical work?

Right now cultural geography is looking at the entanglements between people and plants, and trying to deconstruct the idea that plants are completely passive. Some of these frameworks don’t translate very well to the ancient world, where we have authors saying that plants are indeed passive, that their souls are the souls of people who need to be ruled—slaves. Even if there’s opposition, though, it does help us ask new questions. We’ve thought about gardens as places of identity construction, as spaces of religious activity, as expressions of power, but these questions are based on the elite owner’s relationship to the garden. The new framework invites us to ask what plants wanted, and what gardeners and laborers did to meet those needs. Another important new theoretical framework comes out of the archaeology of slavery, which builds a method for studying a population that historically leaves little to no material record.