Roman Botany

Today at the Manchester Museum, fellow volunteer Veronica Guinness and I worked on photographing objects for a forthcoming exhibition on Roman life. The exhibition will be run by the British Museum, and will tour around the country, with various museums adding their own take on the theme by contributing different objects.

Botany curator Rachel Webster chose objects representing various plants that could be found in a Roman kitchen garden. These objects included jars of seeds and spices from the Manchester Herbarium’s Materia Medica, herbarium sheets and illustrations of common plants grown in Roman gardens.

A passage from Pliny the Elder’s The Natural History gives an insight into how many different remedies and uses just one plant from a garden can offer, in this case garlic. (Please note that I do not recommend trying any of the following remedies):

Mixed with sulphur and resin, garlic draws out the humours from fistulous sores, and employed with pitch, it will extract an arrow even9 from the wound. In cases of leprosy, lichen, and eruptions of the skin, it acts as a detergent, and effects a cure, in combination with wild marjoram, or else reduced to ashes, and applied as a liniment with oil and garum. It is employed in a similar manner, too, for erysipelas; and, reduced to ashes, and mixed with honey, it restores contused or livid spots on the skin to their proper colour. It is generally believed, too, that taken in the food and drink, garlic is a cure for epilepsy, and that a clove of it, taken in astringent wine, with an obolus’ weight of silphium, will have the effect of dispelling quartan fever.

The herbarium sheets and illustrations were photographed using a camera stand and lighting which reminded me of my days as an animation student:

The 3D objects were photographed on a white background.The photos will be uploaded to the museum’s KE Emu database and the objects documented so that they can easily be found and referred to when the time comes to set them up for the exhibition.

Nuts, fruit and onions were commonplace in the kitchen garden in Rome. Excavators at Pompeii have found cavities in the ground where bulbs once grew. Many of the plants in Roman gardens were later introduced to Britain including shallots, asparagus, peas, cabbage, radishes, basil, thyme and mint, just to name a few!

Next week the documentation continues, and I’ll also be doing some exhibition work at Gallery Oldham. All very exciting!

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