Pompeian Historian Wilhelmina Jashemski

Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, who taught ancient history at the University of Maryland, helped establish the academic field of garden archaeology.
Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, who taught ancient history at the University of Maryland, helped establish the academic field of garden archaeology. (Family Photo)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 14, 2008

Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, 97, a retired University of Maryland professor of ancient history and a Pompeian archaeologist, died of renal failure Dec. 24 at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring.

A longtime Silver Spring resident whose home was surrounded by hundreds of azaleas and other flowering plants and trees, she was a gardener and a scholar of ancient gardens. She knew more about the gardens of Pompeii than perhaps any person since the residents themselves were buried under 15 feet of Vesuvian ash nearly two millenniums ago.

Mrs. Jashemski, who helped establish the academic field of garden archaeology, first visited Pompeii in 1955, two centuries after the buried city was rediscovered. Although Roman law was her specialty, she was interested in Roman gardens, in part because she was a gardener herself. "The Romans loved gardens, and you do, too, so why not work on them?" suggested her husband, Stanley A. Jashemski.

It was a marvelous idea, she told The Washington Post in 1977, but she had one reservation: "It sounded entirely too much like fun to be a serious project."

Deciding nevertheless to write a book about Roman gardens, she assumed that the gardens of Pompeii would be one chapter. They became the work of a lifetime.

She discovered that gardens were an integral part of everyday life in the ancient town, where most of the dwellings were single-family rowhouses with a bit of green space to grow figs, olives, cherries and other fruits and vegetables. Some of the larger gardens, she came to understand, had commercial uses, including as vineyards and nurseries, while others were the settings for small restaurants. Gardens also were a favorite site for religious activities, from animal sacrifices to meditation.

Her discovery of the first intact remains of a good-size vineyard from the era revised perceptions of how the Romans planted and managed grapes, stored and used wine, and worked the land.

She was struck, she told The Post, not only by the tragedy of Pompeii's demise but also by life's continuity, by tools and techniques still in use today. "Life," she said, "is still much the same. Did you know I have never found a garden in Pompeii that did not have a dog?"

Henry Ferry, a retired Howard Divinity School church historian, knew Mrs. Jashemski for more than a half-century. "She was an extraordinarily giving person, a very caring and sympathetic person," he said. That generosity of spirit extended to the laborers who toiled alongside her during 16 summers of digging at Pompeii. She learned from them, and they in turn felt a personal interest in her excavations. Some became specialists in their own right.

One summer, pondering an unusual contour in the surface under some vines at Pompeii, she wondered what had caused the ground to be shaped in such a way.

"Why, it's fagiolini" -- string beans, a worker named Antonio told her. "It's the only crop that would have the earth done that way" on Aug. 24, A.D. 79, he said. He took her to see a modern vegetable garden where the beans were being grown the same way.

She spoke Italian fluently, got to know the local families and drew upon venerable folk wisdom for her groundbreaking book, "A Pompeian Herbal: Ancient and Modern Medicinal Plants" (1999). When the book came out, she personally delivered signed copies to each of the laborers.

"Pompeii is one of the two places in the world where I always know where I am," she told The Post. The other was her birthplace, York, Neb., where she was born Wilhelmina Mary Feemster on July 10, 1910.

She received her undergraduate degree summa cum laude in 1931 from York College, majoring in both Latin and mathematics. She taught in the public schools of Walthill, Neb., where most of her students were Native Americans from a reservation, and pursued graduate studies, initially in American history. An adviser suggested that she switch to ancient history because of her background in Latin and Greek studies.

She received her doctorate in ancient history from the University of Chicago in 1945 and taught at Lindenwood College in St. Charles, Mo., from 1942 to 1945.

She moved to the Washington area in 1945 after her husband, a physicist, accepted a position at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory. In 1946, she was appointed to U-Md.'s history faculty. Her first book, "The Origins and History of the Proconsular and Propraetorian Imperium to 27 B.C.," was published in 1950.

In summer 1955, while touring Europe with her husband to gather material for her classes, she visited Pompeii for a day. Thirty years earlier, she had read "The Last Days of Pompeii" and been captivated by the story of roisterous life in the city forever stilled when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79. Her one-day visit proved much too short, so she returned for three weeks in 1957. She began her first excavation four years later.

Her summers of digging and research culminated in the publication of "The Gardens of Pompeii: Herculaneum and the Villas Destroyed by Vesuvius," Volume 1 (1979). Volume 2, with site plans, descriptions, illustrations and photographs, was published in 1993. Both works incorporated selections from the more than 30,000 photographs her husband had taken over the years.

"The book falls into that category of priceless works that represent the thought and the researches of a lifetime," The Post noted in a 1980 review of Volume 1.

With longtime colleague Frederick Meyer, director of the herbarium of the National Arboretum, Mrs. Jashemski co-edited "The Natural History of Pompeii" (2002), and at the time of her death she was editing a major study of the gardens of the Roman Empire by several international scholars. Among her other books is "Letters from Pompeii" (1963).

Mrs. Jashemski retired from U-Md. in 1980 but continued to write and lecture. She was an active member of Takoma Park Presbyterian Church for more than 50 years.

Her husband died in 1982.

Survivors include a brother and a sister.

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