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Pompeii

Giraffe and Sea Urchin on the Menu for People of Pompeii

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A new study , which will be presented today at the Archaeological Institute of America, draws on the results of a large-scale excavation in a forgotten area of Pompeii. The findings revealed the varied diet of the inhabitants, which included giraffe and sea urchin.

Pompeii was an ancient Roman city near modern-day Naples in Italy, which was wiped out and buried under 6 metres of ash and pumice following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.  It is an eerie feeling to walk the empty streets of Pompeii and to view shops and homes left virtually untouched for nearly two millennia. One home still contains a complete loaf of bread sitting in the oven, perfectly preserved by a coating of ash. 

Steven Ellis, a University of Cincinnati associate professor of classics and his team spent more than a decade excavating about 20 shop fronts near one of the busiest gates of Pompeii known as the Portia Stabia.  The latrines and cesspits behind the food sellers revealed charred food waste from the kitchens, as well as human waste that dated as far back as the fourth century B.C., when Pompeii was still in an early stage of development. 

The results of their analyses refute the common belief that the Roman elite dined on exotic delicacies while the poor virtually starved on seed and gruel. It emerged that the lower and middle class ate cheap but healthy 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.

More upscale restaurants could be distinguished by the wider array of delicacies they served, and by the exotic and imported spices, some from as far away as Indonesia.

But one of the most unusual findings was the 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."

By April Holloway

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