Birdbaths: a Splash in Ancient History

pompeiiBirdbath

Despite the simplicity of its design (or perhaps because of it), the birdbath has outlasted the Roman Empire and become an iconic fixture of suburban gardens and lawns today.

Actually, whether the ancient Romans invented birdbaths is questionable.1 However, there is abundant evidence that they used them. Archaeology reveals that this Mediterranean culture, which popularized bathhouses for its citizenry, in fact constructed wash stations for its avian visitors. (The Romans’ fascination with bathhouses and birdbaths seems like more than coincidence.)

Buried under the Ashes                                                                                     

The concept behind the basic birdbath goes back at least a couple millennia. In areas near Mt. Vesuvius, excavations have unearthed these garden ornaments along with artistic depictions of them on walls. For example, archaeologists have noted marble remnants of birdbaths among the first-century ruins of Herculaneum.2 Also, in nearby Pompeii and Oplontis, teams have located villa paintings of birds perched on and around birdbaths. The above illustration by J.M. Landin is based on an ancient Roman fresco.

One of the most impressive paintings from this period comes from Pompeii’s Villa Livia. It’s a wall fresco that features numerous avifauna—an oriole, magpie, sparrows, and pigeons, among other species—congregating throughout a lush garden of plants and flowers.3 The setting’s centerpiece, a basin-shaped bowl atop a pedestal, is unmistakable. That the object is shown with so many feathered creatures leaves little doubt that we’re looking at a birdbath.

Many birds bathe to maintain their feathers. They, of course, also use the water from fountains and basins for hydration. Illustrations of birds drinking at birdbaths are a theme of ancient classical paintings. While most are idyllic, such as those in a fresco from the Villa of Poppaea at Oplontis,4 a few are not. In one mosaic from Pompeii, a bird sits along the rim of a birdbath, lowering its beak, as two other winged neighbors, possibly parrots, gaze below in the vicinity of a small, skulking feline.5

Birdbaths and Beyond

Throughout history, birdbath designs have ranged from the small and simple, like the short-pedestalled basin (along with a pair of doves) illustrated on the ceiling within the fifth-century Galla Placidia mausoleum in Ravenna, Italy,6 to the large and lavish designs found in palace courtyards. Besides traditional elevated versions with the slender base, those that rest on the ground or hang are also common.

Today’s ornaments are made from a much wider variety of materials, including marble, granite, metal, concrete, terra-cotta, and glass. Some modern versions are even equipped with heating features to prevent winter freezing.

Overall, though, the birdbath is “timeless” in its design. Not much generally separates the ones in your neighbors’ lawns from the fare of ancient Roman villa gardens. Very little, of course, other than a span of two thousand years.

Sources:

  1. Many cultures preceding the ancient Romans may have discovered and used similar versions. Due to the relatively unsophisticated design work required to make a functional birdbath, the idea may have originated from unattended pottery, particularly wash basins, that attracted thirsty birds. Imagining such instances is not hard. After all, Pliny records in his Natural History (book 36, chapter 60) that Sosus, a Greek artist of second century BC, had composed a mosaic painting that included a dove drinking from a basin-like vessel.
  2. Bowe, P, DeHart, MD. Gardens and Plants of the Getty Villa. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Publications, 2011. p. 61.
  3. Mackey, E, Bernstein, R. “Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples.” Museum Associates / Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2009: http://www.lacma.org/eduprograms/EvesforEds/PompeiiandtheRomanVillaEssay.pdf.
  4. Bowe, P. Gardens of the Roman World. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Publications, 2004. p. 96.
  5. Engels, DW. Classical Cats: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat. New York: Routledge, 2001. p. 98.
  6. Note that the Galla Placidia mausoleum hyperlink (via University of Columbia) provides an interactive, 360-degree view inside the structure.
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23 thoughts on “Birdbaths: a Splash in Ancient History

    1. Laura, I appreciate your checking out the post and illustration. It seems fitting that the Romans, the same folks who brought us concrete and innovations in architecture, would be really into birdbaths.

  1. I don’t have bird feeders anymore (I rely on the plants in my garden to provide) but I do have a bird bath; I get much more pleasure from watching them splash around than from watching them toss seeds on the ground (I’m talking to you, sparrows!) — and they really seem to appreciate it, for just the reasons you list here. JM’s illo is wonderful.

    1. Yeah, feeders can be messy. Also, the squirrels seem to be as attracted to ours as the birds. (There are squirrel-proof feeders, but we haven’t gone that route yet.) Birdbaths are great, too, for bird watching! I’m glad you enjoyed the post and illustration. Thanks for stopping by—and, by the way, great job on the recent recording!

  2. I think I saw that fresco in Pompeii!! I have a terracotta potplant saucer which I use as a birdbath, and when in use it sits on the balcony floor. Quite large, holds lots of water, favourite place for the birds on hot summer days! Either to stand in or to drink. Love it!

    1. That mosaic is beautiful, and the entire work inside the mausoleum is quite impressive. Did you check out the link to Columbia University’s interactive view within the tomb?

  3. Thanks for this little history of birdbaths. It does make a lot of sense that the Romans had birdbaths. Kind of funny to think that people had pet cats and birdbaths 2000 years ago. Some things haven’t changed! Your wife’s version of a Roman fresco is lovely.

  4. Love your wife’s painting too! I have always loved the sight of a birdbath. When I was a kid there was a house in the neighborhood with an ancient looking one….gracefully stony but with algae laden water. Birds were happy and I liked the green against the old stone. Felt timeless.

    1. I like those stony ones, too. Cleaning them regularly is important, of course. Water with organic debris tends to attract another winged creature, one we’re definitely not fond of—those pesky mosquitoes!

  5. thanks for the extremely fascinating article on birdbaths this article truly meant a lot to me. My great grandma used to have a stone bird bath made of a terracota saucer plant’

    i really hope you reply

  6. Wow! This is truly inspiring. A tree in my backyard just fell down on top of my bird bath! I was so upset because it was a terracotta water wiggler bird bath that my grandmother gave me. Lucky for me my husband is a love dove and gave me a new sun power bath for my 60th birthday celebration. It has so much new technology so I am going to ask my grandson how to connect it. The new bird bath came from Dianna Porter and I’m going to order a new water wiggler off of amazon. It’s definitely not the same but it will do! Ever since retiring from the grocery store business my favorite activity has been watching the sparrows splash around in the bath. I have been a little depressed ever since mine fell. My daughter Cathleen signed me up for a bird watching club and it changed my life for the better. Hope you enjoyed this comment! I’d love to hear your thoughts!!

    1. I’m sorry Gloria for the late response, and I’m also sorry to hear about the damage to your cherished birdbath. I do hope the new birdbath and water wiggler are adequate replacements. Whether flitting to and fro backyard trees or frolicking in birdbaths, birds are inspiring sights. Good luck with the bird-watching!

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