Pompeii's Poor Ate Well, Ancient Remains of Human Waste Reveal
After more than a decade spent excavating the homes, shops and businesses of a non-elite section of Pompeii, archaeologists say they've assembled a picture of the middle and lower class Romans, and specifically of their diet, that is far different than the one often imagined.
Rather than begging for scraps, the non-elite of the city ate well on a diet of grains, fruits, nuts, olives, lentils and the occassional giraffe leg joint, according to the team from the University of Chicago.
The excavation site included 10 different building plots dating back to the 6th century that once accommodated 20 shop fronts, the majority of which served food and drink. The waste studied came from drains as well as 10 latrines and cesspits, and included food waste and excrement.
Of all the sources examined, the drains provided the clearest map of class division, according to Steven Ellis, an associate professor at the school's classics department.
"The material from the drains revealed a range and quantity of materials to suggest a rather clear socio-economic distinction between the activities and consumption habits of each property, which were otherwise indistinguishable hospitality businesses," he said, noting that one drain from a central property contained a wide range of imports, including shellfish and sea urchin. It was here that the giraffe joint was discovered.
"That the bone represents the height of exotic food is underscored by the fact that this is thought to be the only giraffe bone ever recorded from an archaeological excavation in Roman Italy," Ellis said. "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."
Deposits were also found containing spices imported from as far away as Indonesia.
What all of this means, Ellis said, is that the "traditional vision of some mass of hapless lemmings - scrounging for whatever they can pinch from the side of a street, or huddled around a bowl of gruel - needs to be replaced by a higher fare and standard of living, at least for the urbanites in Pompeii."