Dr Patty Baker writes about her ICS-funded project to recreate a Roman garden with the Trust for Thanet Archaeology at Quex Park
In February 2020, I was invited to consult with the Trust for Thanet Archaeology about reconstructing a Roman garden because of my research interests in this area. Thanet Archaeological Trust is an educational organization that holds numerous events throughout the year that focus on teaching local schools and the wider public about the archaeology of the region. Many of the visitors and volunteers are keen gardeners, and the trustees want to build on this connection. The project also allows for the garden to become a living exhibition that will change with the seasons, providing future opportunities for visitors and volunteers to see and work on it. The space will also be used for outreach demonstrations and talks.
The Trust is located at the Antoinette Centre, a building with a drive and a rectangular garden located inside Quex Park, Birchington-on-Sea, Kent. Their garden is enclosed on three sides, making it an ideal spot to re-create an ancient peristyle garden.
Roman gardens found in the Bay of Naples were often located at the back of the house and surrounded by walls and covered walkways. Thanet’s is enclosed on three sides by a fence and the exterior walls of two different buildings. The fourth, shorter side is open and allows for easy public access from the drive. Since the garden area is long, we decided to develop only the back area closest to the building’s entrance.
We started the garden construction at the end of March 2020, but were unable to continue with it until the end of May, when the Covid-19 lockdown eased. From June through August, we worked on it three days a week. Volunteers consisted of Trust members, people who live close to the area, and University of Kent students, all listed at the end of this blog.
We are grateful for the Public Engagement fund from the ICS because it enabled us to purchase materials necessary for the construction of a water feature, flower beds, and a pergola that is intended to mimic a Roman peristyle. It enabled us to create an outdoor space that will act as an outdoor teaching and demonstration area, which is proving important because of the limitations placed on public building usage due to Covid-19.
Constructing the Garden
To re-create the Trust’s Roman garden, I based the plan on ancient gardens found in Pompeii and Herculaneum, archaeobotanical remains of seeds, fruits and pollens found in them and Roman fresco paintings of gardens. Although we stuck with the general plan, we altered it slightly as we worked on it.
We included four raised rectangular flower beds in the garden. These ran parallel to the long sides of the encloser, with two placed at the far end and two at the entry. In between the beds, we built a shallow, square water feature, which had a deeper central section to hold a water reed (Arundo donax). The shallow part of the bed was lined with imbrices and tegula from Roman roof tiles that were unearthed at the Trust’s excavation at Abbey Farm Roman Villa, Minster, Kent. The site has been recorded and published, and the tiles were “taking up space”, and this project provided an opportunity to repurpose them. We planted papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) plants between the tiles in the shallow end.
The flower beds were constructed out of wood and were planted with boxwood (buxus) and flowers that grow locally in Kent. We worked with indigenous plants from the region because we questioned what the Romans might have chosen if they settled in different areas of the empire. Although we based the design on gardens found in the Italian peninsula, the plants were based on those that would likely fare better in the British climate. These included a wild iris (Iris foetidissima), sage (Salvia verbenaca), acanthus (Acanthus mollis), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and lavender (Lavandula angustafolia), all of which were growing in the Trust’s garden.
The walkways between the beds were also laid with the Roman tile from Abbey Farm. Since the Romans used spolia in their buildings, we decided that reusing the rooftiles would imitate this practice and would be a significant talking point for visitors. In fact, the volunteers were excited to use them.
At the back end of the garden, we constructed an apsidal border made of box hedge (buxus), behind which we planted a centrally placed grape vine with two fig (Ficus carica) trees on either side of it. We also constructed a small edging border out imbrices. Flat roof tiles were also used to make a circular feature in front of the apse, where an imitation altar and/or incense burner will eventually be placed, as a nod to the religious function of the Roman gardens.
The long fence acted as the back wall to the pergola and was painted black. Long semi-circular poles were attached to the modern concrete fence partitions and painted a Moroccan red, the closest colour we could find to Pompeian red paint. These poles extended a foot or so above the fence and were joined together with crisscrossed willow fence edging to imitate Roman fencing depicted in garden frescos. Round, rustic looking posts were used to imitate front columns and were placed about two feet in front of the semi-circular poles. These were painted white and were attached to the fence with angled wooden slates. A jasmine (Jasminum officinale) plant, already growing along the fence, was retrained to spread along the top of the wooden slats, as a covering for the peristyle walkway.
The front entrance to the garden was bordered with a box hedge. Posts, about three feet high were also placed at the entrance to mimic the continuation of a peristyle colonnade. These were painted white and red in keeping with many Pompeian garden columns.
As the garden is intended for public outreach, we also included wheelchair access, which runs along the side opposite of the pergola and next to the Trust’s building. Posts were also placed along the outside of this entranceway to denote the edge of the garden, and to give the visitor a feeling that they were wandering around the outer edges of the garden similar to how a Roman might have experienced them.
The experimental archaeology was important because it forced us to question how the Romans would have designed their gardens. Although the archaeological remains can help us answer some of our concerns, we often found ourselves asking questions that are not always obvious until something is attempted to be recreated. We questioned the sourcing of plants and materials, the multiple uses of Roman gardens, and how they were experienced.
Two of the questions we returned to often were how did the Romans choose their plants and where did they find them? We speculated that most would have been selected from the local region and were replanted (or seeded) into the household gardens.
The second issue we had to address was that of authenticity. Although it would be a useful experiment to recreate all aspects of the Roman garden with ancient tools and materials, such an undertaking would have been expensive and time consuming. We used an electric drill to construct the pergola, flowerbeds, and water feature. The water feature was lined with pond lining and weed barriers were placed under the walkways and planted features. We also used modern paints, which contain chemical ingredients unknown to the Romans. However, we thought it best to admit to visitors where we had relied on modern conveniences and saw this as a talking point to consider modern and ancient means of construction, decoration and plant cultivation.
Experiencing the garden
The archaeological remains of Roman gardens in the Bay of Naples give us an idea of the sights, sounds, smells, and textures the Romans would have encountered that they thought were beneficial to them. In comparison, environmental psychologists today are finding that both mental and physical health improves when patients encounter green spaces. Aside from the numerous academic questions raised, working in the garden came with its own rewards for our mental and physical wellbeing.
The physical activity and the sensory encounters we had in the garden also made us appreciate not only what it would have been like to be in a household garden in the ancient world, but why they were thought to contribute to benefit the Roman’s health. It is located in a protected area that was regularly warm and sunny in the morning. As the day progressed, it would often get hot, resembling a Mediterranean climate, often making us feel soporific and relaxed. Since the garden is set in a quiet location of the park, it is possible to hear the sounds of birds and the wind through the trees, both of which were calming. Overall, the work was a welcome relief from the uncertainties caused by Covid-19.
In closing, the Trust welcomes anyone interested in visiting the garden or using the space for talks and demonstrations. Further information can be found at http://www.trustforthanetarchaeoygy.org.uk
Dr. Patty Baker, Formerly of the University of Kent, founder of Pax in Natura www.paxinnature.com firstname.lastname@example.org
Ges Moody Director of the Trust for Thanet Archaeology (TAT)
Diana Holmes (TAT)
Linda Byway (TAT)
Liz North (Local Volunteer)
Clare Lanburn (Local Volunteer)
Karl Goodwin (Kent)
Abi Spanner (Durham University)
Martha Carter (Kent)
Kelsey Bennet (Kent)
Ali Hinjosa (Kent)
Maddy Scrabeck (Kent)
Charity Hebert (Kent)
Dr. Todd Mei (www.Philosophy2U.com, Formerly of Kent)