History of the Project

Originally modeled on Gardens of Pompeii (1979-1993), with its book of essays and catalogue of archaeological sites, Wilhelmina Jashemski planned Gardens of the Roman Empire as a far more ambitious project. It has engaged an interdisciplinary team of nearly 200 scholars, students, volunteers, and specialists to assemble a vast body of data into this digital project, which complements, but is independent of, a print volume of essays published by Cambridge University Press, Gardens of the Roman Empire (2018). Ultimately, this website is designed to publish the assembled catalogue of material in the format in which Jashemski first envisioned it, while using contemporary digital tools to make the data readily discoverable, navigable and citable. It takes the project forward into the future with essential search tools, links, and maps. The result is a website that realizes her original vision while transforming the project into a fully independent digital forum for research on Roman gardens and designed landscapes.


The seeds of this project were sown in 1950s, when Wilhelmina Jashemski set out to record all of the known gardens of the Roman Empire. That year she traveled with husband Stanley Jashemski throughout the Mediterranean and ended with a single day at Pompeii, as she believed the gardens preserved by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius were already documented and published. It was their first visit overseas and they were not able to find many actual gardens, but Prof. Jashemski built a critical network of scholars. Stanley Jashemski recorded the sites on Kodachrome film, which had recently been marketed for use by educators. This was the beginning of an invaluable record he created of archaeological sites.

During the first trip to Europe in 1955, they saw the gardens excavated by Dorothy Burr Thompson at the Temple of Hephaistos in Athens, but few ancient garden sites. Rather, this trip allowed Jashemski, a native of Nebraska, to observe horticultural methods, talk with farmers and gardeners, learn Mediterranean plants and the agricultural calendar, as well as to work with her husband to create a photographic record, later published as Wildflowers amidst the Ruins (2012) and as the plants catalogue of the Natural History of Pompeii (2002).

On their second trip in 1957 they surveyed the gardens of Pompeii with Tatiana Warscher, the author of the Codex Topographicus Pompeianus, a thorough documentation of every structure of Pompeii. She convinced Jashemski that her first book "would be" on the Vesuvian gardens. Warscher passed on her extensive knowledge of the region’s gardens, and they continued to correspond until her death in 1960. The Jashemskis spent the next twenty-five years recording and excavating the gardens of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis and the other villages, villas, and farms of the area, recording 646 gardens and 202 garden paintings for her two volume work, The Gardens of Pompeii (1979, 1993). She carried out this work with her husband, who recorded newly exposed and fading wall paintings as well as gardens, drew the plans and axonometric reconstructions, and advised on scientific techniques until his death in 1981. The Gardens of the Roman Empire project remained part of their travel project before and after the field seasons.

International Collaborative Approach to Gardens of the Roman Empire

In 1979, Jashemski retired from the University of Maryland. This year was marked by the publication of the Gardens of Pompeii, as well as the spring symposium at Dumbarton Oaks, Ancient Roman Gardens (1981), co-hosted with Landscape Studies Director, Elisabeth Blair MacDougall. The papers included reports by Jorge de Alarcão on the gardens at Conimbriga, Portugal, by Barry Cunliffe on Fishbourne Roman Villa, Marcel Le Glay on the gardens of Vienne, and Jashemski's own work in Campania. This symposium marked the first time that an international group of scholars--and students--had come together to discuss the archaeology and role of gardens in Roman life. Afterwards, Jashemski saw the Gardens of the Roman Empire, not as a single-authored work, but as an edited collaboration with archaeologists working throughout the Roman world. A second symposium in 1984, Ancient Roman Villa Gardens (1987) added new discoveries from Italy (Eugenia Salza Prina Ricotti and Walter Widrig), the Vesuvian region (Stefano de Caro and Wilhelmina Jashemski), and Montmaurin, Gaul (Jean-Marie Pailler).

After these conferences, Roman garden archaeology began to grow as a new field. In 1985 a student of Barry Cunliffe’s, Kathryn Gleason responded to a request from Ehud Netzer to examine the gardens of Herod the Great’s palaces in Judea. Gleason began to develop reliable methods of detecting the stratigraphy of cultivated soils, collecting environmental remains, and recording garden features outside of the special surficial garden conditions at Pompeii. After work at Pompeii, Jashemski undertook excavations in 1987-1988 at Hadrian’s Villa with Eugenia Salza Prina Ricotti and at Thuburbo Majus in 1990 with Margaret Alexander and Aïcha Ben Abed Ben Khader, the team of the Corpus of the Mosaics of Tunisia, and her scientific team. Other classical archaeologists began looking for garden evidence and reported their findings to Jashemski.

In 1988 Jashemski created an international team of archaeologists to serve as area editors of the different provinces of the Empire at its fullest extent under Trajan. They were charged with seeking out and assembling all known Roman gardens into a consistent catalogue-style format. This was to have been paired with a volume of essays, to be published by Cambridge University Press. Some editors wrote up the entries for their regions themselves, while others had garden archaeologists author entries, which they reviewed and assembled. In 1995, Jashemski, together with area editor Kathryn Gleason, hosted a conference at the University of Pennsylvania Museum that gathered seventeen scholars to report on the gardens they had recorded in different provinces of the Empire. The unexpected extent of preserved Roman garden culture astounded everyone and it was clear that much work lay ahead.

By 2005 the compendium of garden sites approached one thousand entries, including those of the Vesuvian region. The manuscript exceeded the word count allowable for a print volume. Jashemski worked with the area editors to cut their text back to one or two paragraphs. She then wrote an abridged version of the original Gardens of Pompeii for publication and it is this new, previously unpublished manuscript that forms the basis for the entries on this website. Meanwhile, as a special fellow for Garden Archaeology at Dumbarton Oaks, Amina-Aïcha Malek, who had collaborated on the GRE since the 1995 meeting, worked closely with Jashemski on the volume essay and the catalogue entries. New discoveries continued to arrive and the size of the catalogue expanded. Two options were considered: a traditional paper volume with only plans as illustrations, or a CD of the full entries with color images to be inserted in the back of the book. Jashemski thought that the CD will be the best choice as it would also allow the readers to navigate the catalogue on screen while reading the book of essays. Clopper Almon, a colleague from University of Maryland, scanned the illustrations and explored alternative formats and numbering of the entries to expedite the project. Meanwhile, Gleason, Malek and Hartswick focused their attention on assisting Jashemski with the essay volume. This was the state of the project at the time of her death on Dec. 24, 2007. Her executor, Henry Ferry, appointed Kathryn Gleason as executive editor of the project, with Kim Hartswick and Amina-Aicha Malek as co-editors. Michele Palmer took on the role of project manager and Victoria I who worked on Jashemski’s previous publications continued to provide advice on graphic layout. Gleason’s students at Cornell University tested the materials and prepared illustrations and reconstruction drawings. Working with Beatrice Rehl of Cambridge University Press, the team, Gleason, Malek, Hartswick, Victoria I and Palmer, explored the emerging options for digital publication, as they worked to get the essay volume through press.

The Gardens of the Roman Empire Digital Initiatives

Digital publication holds the potential to solve many of the problems associated with the complexity of gardens as archaeological artifacts, offering an interactive forum for presenting new findings, specialist analyses, and advances in techniques. Through meetings with Cambridge and the American Council of Learned Societies, Gleason and Malek developed a working proposal for an interactive digital project. A CNRS/PICS grant (2015-2017) served as seed funding for the Gardens of the Roman Empire Digital Initiative (GREDI).

The goals were to create:

  • a reference designed to accommodate the unique character of gardens, navigated using search tools and GIS mapping.
  • a digital reference offered free to the public through a link on Cambridge University’s website.
  • a website that solicits updates and additions via the internet and social media as new evidence emerges.

In the first phase of this initiative, the team used tools such as Carto and QGIS to create the location data for the gardens under the direction of Keith Jenkins of Cornell's Mann Library and with the participation of Gleason's seminar students at Cornell.

The text based presentation of the garden entries remained to be designed when area editor Roger Bagnall proposed having the ISAW digital humanities team create a prototype with blog technology that had lower barriers for contributors, inexpensive, sustainable and stable. Led by David M. Ratzan and CLIR post-doctoral fellow Christian Casey, they designed an exciting prototype that was relatively simple to build and maintain using readily available, inexpensive blog software. Confined by the COVID pandemic in 2020, ISAW interns, Cornell students, and an international group of volunteers have digitized the manuscript for the Gardens of the Roman Empire, a huge step forward towards an interactive database.

The concept of a beta site has enabled the team to release this legacy project in a format that retains the integrity of Jashemski’s original content while bringing it thoroughly up to date with contemporary digital resources. Wilhelmina Jashemski, who frequently delayed her publications to incorporate new information, would be thrilled with the capacity of the website to engage authors and the wider readership in updating and developing the project.