A Shark in a Roof and a Poet on a Wall: Interpreting the Past

In our lesson this week, we started by looking at some photographs of modern day Oxford, and asking you what you thought an archaeologist from the future might make of them? We all know that one picture shows tourists taking a group photograph, and that another shows the university traditions of graduating and celebrating a finals exam, but to someone without this context, these images might look very strange and be interpreted very differently!

You made suggestions such as religious or army gatherings, as well as some more out-of-the-box ideas that they might think the phone was a weapon, or the bags of the tourists were an extension of their bodies!

Finally, the shark house photograph, familiar to most Oxford residents, is a bit unexpected, even if you’re not from the future – what might an archaeologist make of that?!

We then focused on evidence of the layout, uses and decor of the house of a wealthy Roman in the first century AD. We are very used to the layout of modern housing, with its emphasis on privacy and the family unit; however, Roman villas had different designs which reflected the very different lifestyles of their inhabitants.

We explored this layout using the example of the House of the Tragic Poet. Starting at the street entrance, we looked at how the entrance was right onto the street – this was typical of these sorts of houses. There were shops on either side of the entrance, with doors leading from the shops into the entrance passage way (called ‘fauces’, which literally means ‘throat/gullet’). There was a famous mosaic of a rather fierce dog with the Latin words “cave canem” underneath, meaning “beware of the dog”.


The fauces led to the atrium, a very important reception room in a Roman house.  The atrium was open to the sky, through a hole in the roof called a ‘compluvium’, through which rainwater could fall into a pool below called an ‘impluvium’. This was an important public room in a house, where the owner would meet his business clients and guests. Other aspects of daily life also went on here, such as children playing, women spinning, eating and even sleeping.

The atrium in the House of the Tragic Poet was originally decorated with six large frescoes depicting scenes from the Iliad, including Helen of Sparta boarding the ship to go to Troy with Paris, and Achilles giving up Briseis to Agamemnon.


After the atrium was the tablinum, which was a study. The tablinum in the House of the Tragic Poet contained a fresco which had led to the name of the house. Originally, it had been thought to have been of a poet reciting; however, it was later discovered to represent Admetus receiving a scroll stating that he was to die if he could not find a substitute.

Behind the tablinum was the peristyle, a courtyard containing a garden and a shrine called a ‘lararium’.

There were various bedrooms (cubicula) leading off the atrium and peristyle, and also a ‘triclinium’ (dining room). This was also decorated with frescoes – of Ariadne being abandoned by Theseus and Iphigenia being taken to be sacrificed by her father Agamemnon, so that the Greeks could get safe passage to Troy.

You can remind yourself of a typical layout here.

Next time, we will like at Primordial Soup progress!

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