Project 5: Main streets as decoratively designed functional spaces

Via dell’Abbondanza in Pompeii, © Jackie and Bob Dunn
Via dell’Abbondanza in Pompeii© Jackie and Bob Dunn

WP 5 will form an analysis of main streets. The Vesuvian cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum are ideal study areas for this research. It may also include the archaeological contexts of streets from the harbour city of Ostia, although the majority of meaningful contexts here are late Antique.

Analysis of main streets necessitates the development of a hierarchy of the road system, i.e. a differentiation between main and side streets. Several suggestions to reach such a hierarchy have been made in the past: main streets lead directly to city gates; they are usually wider than other roads. A particular feature, however, is that more doors and access points open onto main roads, in other words the framing structural ensembles are generally divided into smaller units.

Most of the numerous studies that have dealt with streets in recent years aim to reach conclusions about streets as spaces in the strictest of senses. They concentrate on cart tracks, traces of wear and stepping stones in order to reconstruct the flow of traffic. Some include assessments of installations such as altars, wells, fountains and water towers in order to reconstruct patterns of action and activity in street spaces. To date, however, only few studies addressed the fact that the space of action that is a street is not limited to the actual roadway itself, but included all adjacent structures and buildings.

The main streets of Roman cities were mostly framed by houses and their facades. A recurring feature are small shops (tabernae) or workshops (officinae) fronting the houses themselves. The latter have at least been partially studied, although they have never been discussed as part of their street context. As such it is fair to conclude that the functional structure of street spaces with their very different tabernae and officinae has seen very little study to date. In the case of Pompeii, the functional identifications suggested by Eschebach (1993), which are generally used as a basis for any mapping of commercial spaces, rely solely on (only rarely decisive) graffiti and unsystematic observations of small finds.

As such, this WP must initially identify the functional character of the structures flanking streets, in order to enable their study as spaces of action and agency. This will form the basis for studying the varying modes of visual layout of streets. Streets only rarely include prominent structural decor features such as honorific arches; the majority of street ornaments take the form of small shrines, altars and wells or fountains. A recurring feature, however, is the dominance in street design and effect of flanking facades. The access points to tabernae and officinae are mostly designed in so wide a fashion that they can be seen as a further, purposefully designed aspect of this extended street space. The aim of WP 5 is to analyse this street space in its totality.

The analysis of street spaces, however, will only be able to reach very limited conclusion regarding the phases before the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD 79. The majority of frescoes and graffiti only allow for a very limited chronological structuring. Ultimately it is the small finds, which will be drawn on to identify contexts of usage, that document the final period of use of street spaces in these cities.

As such, this work package will have to formulate a highly comparative outlook as to how individual elements of street spaces developed in chronological and regional terms. This includes an assessment of what chronological and regional contexts led to the development of main streets into particularly lively commercial spaces. In addition, the work package will investigate when streets began to be paved, when streets were furnished with sidewalks, as well as why and when porticoes were built along certain streets.