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Ruins of Pompeii seen from the above with a drone, with the Vesuvius in the background

A Diet of Delicacies for the People of Pompeii Included Giraffe and Sea Urchin

Several years ago, surprising discoveries were made in a study , which drew on the findings of a sizable excavation of an area of Pompeii. The study, which was presented to the Archaeological Institute of America in 2014, had found remarkable ingredients in the diet of ancient Pompeians, which today would be considered delicacies at best and repugnant at worst. The study revealed they enjoyed a diverse diet, which included giraffe and sea urchin.

Sea urchin

Sea urchin ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

A City Preserved

The famously preserved ancient Roman city of Pompeii, near modern-day Naples in Italy, was devastated by the eruption of the volcano, Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. For years it lay buried under volcanic rock and ash which served to help preserve it for almost 2,000 years. Tourists can now walk its empty streets, peering into homes and workplaces and getting an incredibly real insight into the ancient world of its inhabitants. One kitchen even contains a complete loaf of bread sitting in the oven, protected for years by a coating of ash.

Cast of a Pregnant Woman found in Skeleton Alley in Pompeii Roman 1st century AD chalk

Cast of a Pregnant Woman found in Skeleton Alley in Pompeii Roman 1st century AD chalk ( CC BY NC NA 2.0 )

Amongst the Ashes

A team from the University of Cincinnati led by associate professor of classics, Steven Ellis, excavated the site for over 10 years, uncovering about 20 shop fronts in an area near one of the main portals of Pompeii, known as the Portia Stabia.  It was here that charred food waste from the kitchens of food sellers was found, as well as human waste that dated as far back as the fourth century BC, when Pompeii was still becoming established. 

After a thorough analysis of their finds, their results contradicted the common belief that the Roman elite enjoyed fine dining on exotic delicacies while the common folk struggled by on basic rations like, bread and scraps. The evidence showed that the lower and middle class ate inexpensive but nutritional foods including grains, fruits, nuts, olives, lentils, local fish, and eggs. They also ate more expensive meat, shellfish, sea urchin and salted fish from Spain.

"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," said Ellis.

A Tall Order Menu

The more upmarket establishments differentiated themselves by offering a wider choice of delicacies to their clientele, and providing more complex and delicious flavors by including exotic, imported spices - some from as far away as Indonesia.

Giraffe leg bone

Giraffe leg bone ( CC BY SA 3.0 ), and sea urchin remains were found ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

But one of the most shocking findings was the solitary butchered leg joint of a giraffe. "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."

Top image: Ruins of Pompeii seen from the above with a drone, with the Vesuvius in the background ( CC BY SA 4.0 )

By April Holloway

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