When people think of Pompeii, it’s often to conjure up images of violent destruction, or to ponder the fragility of life as so visibly showcased by the remains of Pompeiians who were caught by the wrath of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.
But there was much more to this town than just its end, and for the past ten years, archaeologists from the University of Cincinnati have excavated a row of building plots located in the non-elite district of the city.
Some of these building plots—which represent a total of 20 store fronts near the Portia Stabia—date as far back as the 6th-century B.C.
The archaeologists learned that these store fronts were mostly restaurants, and researchers were able to take the finds of preserved, mineralized and charred food contents (found in drains and toilets… don’t think about that too hard) in order to analyze it.
The findings were surprising, because it was previously thought that the non-elites of Pompeii were more or less a “mass of hapless lemmings – scrounging for whatever they can pinch from the side of a street, or huddled around a bowl of gruel”, said Steve Ellis (University of Cincinnati Associate Professor of Classics), presenting the findings at the Archaeological Institute of America Annual Conference in Chicago on January 4th. This traditional vision “needs to be replaced by a higher fare and standard of living, at least for the urbanites in Pompeii.”
While archaeologists did find food remnants that would have been standard, inexpensive fare in ancient Italy (ie. grains, fruit, olives, fish, lentils, eggs, and nuts), they also discovered that ancient Pompeiians enjoyed a wide variety of exotic dishes featuring imported fare from outside of Italy.
It’s a foodie’s dream: sea urchins, shellfish, flamingos, and the team even uncovered a giraffe’s butchered leg joint (which is the first giraffe bone found in ancient Roman Italy).
Ellis commented on the giraffe bone, saying, “how part of the animal, butchered, came to be a kitchen scrap in a seemingly standard Pompeian restaurant not only speaks to long-distance trade in exotic and wild animals, but also something of the richness, variety and range of a non-elite diet.”
The archaeological team also found traces imported, exotic spices from far away regions such as Indonesia.