A group of archaeologists, exploring the cesspits, sewers and latrines at Pompeii and Herculaneum, have unearthed valuable information regarding the diverse nature of the ancient Roman cuisine. Both of these ancient towns were destroyed as a result of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. During a three-day conference, recently held in Rome, the team highlighted the new discoveries, which in turn shed more light on the life and food habits of the common people at the time.
The study actually focuses on leftovers and also, undigested remnants of food that eventually ended up in local dumps and cesspits. Over the centuries, the impacted sewers and dumping grounds helped prevent complete decomposition, thereby preserving residual food traces. Among the items found at the sites are half-chewed fish bones, pig bones and even goose eggshells. Talking about the research, Mark Robinson, an environmental archaeology professor at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, said:
We just have small glimpses of the environment, but some are quite curious.
Much of the food consumed by the Romans, back then, was local. Some varieties of the mollusk shells recovered from the latrine holes of Herculaneum had actually come from the nearby beaches. However, imported items included grains from Egypt, dates that were brought from the Middle East and Northern Africa and also, pepper and other spices from India. While the archaeologists have spotted no significant traces of flour, at both the sites, remains of grain weevils have been found at the local sewers.
Cesspits, dating as far back as the 1st century B.C. and the 1st century A.D., at Porta Stabia in Pompeii have shown an abundance of pig bone remnants. This suggests that pork, which features quite prominently in the contemporary Roman cuisine, was a staple even during ancient times and was consumed by elites and commoners alike. Remains of telline, a particular type of mollusk and an important ingredient that is widely used today to make seafood sauce, have been found.
The team has also found a large number of eggshell pieces as well as fish bones. According to Erica Rowan, an archaeologist working at the Herculaneum site, goose eggs were a delicacy eaten mostly by the rich Romans. However, one of the major items consumed by the rich and the poor was fish, sourced from the local beaches. The volcanic eruption led to the carbonization of food products, stored for later use. These include tiny, pieces of carbonized bread, or “nibbles for the gods” as Robinson calls them, discovered at a kiln in Pompeii. Debris of votive cups
suggest that these bread bits were actually offered to the Roman deities.
Additionally, the archaeologists have also unearthed a scallop shell, with traces of makeup on it.