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Archaeological Study of Roman Life and Behavior Essay

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Updated: Feb 26th, 2021


It was, as usual, a very hot day at the ongoing excavations at Pompeii. The Italian sun was up and there was little breeze to carry away the dust raised by the archeologists continuing their centuries-long task. They slowly carry on the process of uncovering and understanding the lives and hopes of the people of this doomed and ash-entombed city. The scale of the dig is far less than it used to be back in the 1960s, involving fewer archeologists bent over the solidified volcanic ash. Today, for reasons of finance as well as scientific caution, most effort is concentrated on preserving what has been thus far revealed. However, there is nonetheless a continuing investigation, especially into the earlier strata of the city, to reveal its pre-eruption history.

There is also a push to investigate the area immediately outside the 66-hectare center of the site – the city proper (BBC). Thus, when the object, nicknamed The Scuba Divers, turned up near the foundations of the ancient bath-structure, it caused a commotion. There was still a good crowd of hardy scholars present to ooh and ash over its implications for classical archeologists everywhere. The Director, Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, was called in to share in the delight of discovery and inquiry. Although this discovery may lack the size and drama of the Muse Cycle that has been discovered at the Hospitium de Sulpicii or the visual beauty of the fresco that once covered the back wall of a Pompeiian garden, it is nonetheless significant. (Unknown, Muse Cycle) (Gill). It raises some very intriguing questions regarding several areas of Roman life and behavior.

Hospitium dei Sulpice

Since the most recent excavation efforts are focused on a bath complex in Murecine not far from the River Sarno, called the Hospitium dei Sulpice, the object is, not surprisingly, assumed to be associated with bathing. It is a cast bronze object about 13 inches in length, with a handle and a round paddle-shaped area at the other end (Unknown). One surface of the round end is quite flat and remarkably smooth, and the other bears a low relief decoration.

The relief was probably created by the lost wax method common to many small-scale Classical bronze pieces. For a small object like this, the artisan might use the solid wax technique.. The piece would first be sculpted in solid wax in three dimensions (in low relief in this case). The model would be wrapped in clay. This would be heated to the point where the wax could melt and run out. This heating would also partially fire the clay to some greater degree of hardness than simply air-drying. Molten bronze would be poured into the now-empty clay mold. Upon complete cooling, the solid bronze could be freed from its concealing skin by shattering the clay casing (Metropolitan Museum). The fact that this was an ancient method, and feasible for small works, suggests that it was probably used in this case. Because of the ease of sculpting of wax, great delicacy and complexity of detail are possible with this technique, and this characteristic is, indeed, visible in this piece.

It is the subject matter of what seems clear to be a lavish hand mirror that has captured the imagination of scholars. It offers a wonderful insight into the athletics and the exploratory urge of the Romans.

Although of course pitted and damaged by long burial in the ground, and to some degree, by the action of the volcanic ash itself. The bronze mirror backing shows an exquisitely rendered scene. The relief depicts a man and a woman, both portrayed in the nude, wearing what appears to be some sort of snorkel or breathing apparatus. Both are in the clear and unambiguous act of swimming. The surface of the water is even indicated, showing that the figures are moving underwater, without any direct contact with the air.

Below their feet is an assemblage of geometric shapes. These consist of rectangles, triangles, and cylinders that suggest s grouping of buildings. It is not known what these represent, but there have been highly sensational suggestions in the popular press.

Heretofore, there has been a variety of evidence of several forms of sub-marine breathing in the ancient world. The residents of Crete, as far back as 3000 BCE, were said to use reeds to breathe while collecting sponges from the sea bottom, although this must have been rather shallow water. More recently, divers in Assyria recorded using bladders fashioned of animal skins, much like the air bladder of a bagpipe, to carry air below that water. Bladders made from large animals are depicted, although not being put to that use for underwater breathing. An example of a sizable bladder, blown up to full size is visible in the example of the Fountain Sculpture reproduction housed at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. (Unknown, Fountain Sculpture). Such a volume of air could keep a swimmer breathing in shallow water for some time. Alexander the Great, in the 3rd century BCE, directed the creation of a sort of diving bell apparatus. This was probably meant for military espionage, perhaps permitting spies to approach an enemy coastline undetected. In Aristotle’s time, a tube to the surface was in use, flexible enough to allow some diver mobility (Cayman Activity Guide).

However, there was little or nothing in terms of visual artifacts to show these or any other technologies, in use, in the Roman period. This sort of activity is not fully documented for the Romans, and certainly not for Roman women. This scarcity of artifacts that can attest to underwater swimming makes this hand mirror a truly astonishing addition to the body of Classical knowledge.

The two figures are enjoying themselves in their nude or nearly nude underwater excursion. Their bodies are well defined and their faces are just barely visible underneath their breathing equipment, demonstrating just how obsessive the detail in this piece is. Behind them are strands of what could be seaweed. There is no iconographic evidence that either of them is a god.

Below them, as noted above, are geometric and columnar shapes. It is these shapes that have caused the greatest furor of speculation, once the digital images of the piece were made public. They can be interpreted as purely decorative, abstract, or perhaps symbolic of the place of origin of the two swimmers.

Some observers, however, both in the scholarly community and in the popular press, have attested that they see these shapes as the depiction of a city, viewed from a distance. However, this would place the city on the sea bottom. Some journalists, showing more imagination than responsibility, have suggested that these shapes represent the legendary lost city of Atlantis.

Furthermore, these journalists, seemingly eager for a sensational story, have made other wilder proposals. They have also suggested that this relief depicts the way that Romans communicated and interacted with that sunken community spoken of in myth and fable. These ideas are admittedly very creative and show admirable flexibility of thinking. However, to be possible, this would require a level of technology for which there is no evidence. The existence of a living underwater city would imply that all the residents there were able to breathe underwater. This seems less than plausible.

Another possibility is that that there was indeed a sunken city, as suggested by Plato, in ruins. As an interesting collection of buildings and sculptures, such an underwater site could be a sort of tourist destination for Roman citizens. If this relief accurately depicts a breathing apparatus that allowed humans to breathe underwater, a visit to the site would have been no more remarkable than a visit to a coral reef by a modern person equipped with scuba gear. The sunken buildings would attract visitors in the same way that any natural feature or wonder of nature or construction might.

What does this suggest about the nature of Roman aquatics and the role of women in such activities?

Romans used swimming in public pools as a social and healing activity. Swimming in rough waters was used as a training and conditioning routine for soldiers (White).

Women in Roman society were expected to be chaste and respectable bearers of children and keepers of the household. They seldom left the home and did not take part in public activities except as spectators of public entertainment. The freedom of wealthy women was greater. Their influence on the men in their lives could be substantial (PBS.org). Some mosaics in sites other than Pompeii show that women could participate in some sports (Niu).

The Scuba Divers shows that underwater swimming was possible and inclusive of women. The more outrageous recent inferences regarding the existence of a sunken city as a destination for underwater excursions will require further research.

Works Cited

BBC. 2014. BBC. Web.

Cayman Activity Guide. “Snorkel History.” 2014. Cayman Activity Guide. Web.

Gill, N. 2014. About.com. Web.

Metropolitan Museum. 2014. Metropolitan Museum. Web.

Niu, Gabrielle. 2011. Penn Museum Blog. Web.

PBS.org. 2006. PBS.org. Web.

Unknown. Fountain Sculpture. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. Bronze. Web.

Unknown. Metropolitan Museum. Bronze. Web.

Unknown. Muse Cycle. Fresco. Web.

White, Donald. 1985. Expedition Magazine. Web.

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