Ancient Pompeiians Built Parts of the City With Recycled Trash
Archaeologists have determined rubbish mounds outside the city walls at Pompeii were “recycling sites” where trash was sorted, reformed and resold, revealing the ancient Pompeiians were eco-conscious too.
Pompeii is the vast archaeological site in southern Italy’s Campania region, near the coast of the Bay of Naples, that was at one time an elegant city of luxury villas, ostentatious public buildings, highly-populated open squares lined with bustling shops, taverns, bath houses and brothels, until the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD buried the city beneath meters of ash and pumice.
Consumed in darkness for almost 2000 years, in 1748 a group of early archaeological explorers discovered the lost city, which is now a Unesco World Heritage Site attracting over 2.5 million visitors each year. And now, a team of researchers at Pompeii have studied soil samples determining that a series of “huge mounds of refuse” outside the city walls were “staging grounds for cycles of use and reuse,” put another way - ancient recycling stations.
Plaster cast of an ancient Pompeiian who was victim to the Mount Vesuvius eruption in 79 AD. ( BlackMac / Adobe stock)
Prolific Pompeiian Recyclers Built With Trash
Professor Allison Emmerson is an American academic who teaches classical studies at Tulane University , New Orleans, and she is the author of a new paper titled, Life and Death in the Roman Suburb, scheduled for publication next month by Oxford University Press . The results of the author’s recent and ongoing excavations at Pompeii are based on studies of thirteen different Roman cities in Italy, with comparative information sourced from over seventy-five others, and the scientist contextualizes ash covered artifacts in context of the development of urbanization in the pre-Roman period to Late Antiquity period.
It is known Romans were highly-skilled water engineers having created aqueducts and concrete underfloor heating, but only now has it been established that they were also prolific recyclers. Dr. Emmerson and her fellow archaeologists, Steven Ellis and Kevin Dicus, found that part of the city had been built using fragments of trash and concluded that the Romans had piled up rubbish along almost “the entire external wall on the city’s northern side.”
The rubbish mounds, measuring several meters high, were found to contain ceramic and plaster fragments which were “repurposed as construction materials,” according to the researchers.
Fresco at the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. ( jiduha / Adobe stock)
Straightening Out the Record
Prior to these new findings the huge mounds were associated with an earthquake that struck the city about 17 years before the famous volcanic event, but the piles outside the walls were actually being “collected and sorted to be resold inside the walls.” Furthermore, Emmerson and her colleagues studied soil samples to trace the movement of refuse across the ancient city and their scientific analysis tracked some of the refuse from the mounds back to suburban deposits, then back to the city where the material was incorporated into earth floors and buildings.
One of the key disciplines within this new study was the accurate identification and categorization of soil types, for example, garbage dumped in latrines or cesspits creates a rich, organic soil, and waste accumulated on streets over time, or in mounds outside the city, results in a much sandier soil, according to Emerson in a Guardian article.
These differences in soil structure allowed the researchers to determine whether the garbage had been generated where it was found, or had been gathered elsewhere for recycling. An example the research presents, is pieces of broken tiles and amphorae from the mounds, which were also found in lumps of mortar and plaster from wall interiors, which were ultimately covered with a smooth layer of plaster.
Emmerson said that modern approaches to waste management focus on getting rubbish as far from our daily lives, as quickly as possible, and that we generally don’t really care what happens to our trash when it’s taken away. But in ancient Pompeii waste materials were being collected and sorted for recycling. And this means the entire collection, sorting, recycling and reselling industries must have existed to have processed and redistributed the reformed trash.
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Illustrated reconstruction of how the Temple of Apollo in Pompeii may have looked before Mt. Vesuvius erupted. (CyArk / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Should We Trash Our Trashy Attitudes Towards, Trash?
The paper explains that ancient Pompeiians lived “much closer to their garbage than most of us would find acceptable,” but not because the city lacked infrastructure or neglected sanitation, but because their systems of urban management were organized around different principles.
Emmerson thinks the ancient Roman attitude towards trash “has relevance for the modern garbage crisis” and she added that in modern countries where a version of the “ancient model, prioritizing commodification rather than simple removal,” is applied, they more effectively manage their waste.
Considering current world trash statistics, Emmerson’s suggestion that we perhaps need to change our perspectives regarding rubbish is not only highlighted, but exasperated. According to a May 18, 2018 article in National Geographic , World Bank researchers estimate the world generates at least “3.5 million tons of plastic and other solid waste a day,” which is about ten times the volume of a century ago, and the U.S. is the world’s king of trash producing 250 million tons a year, which equates to roughly 4 pounds of trash per person per day.
Top image: Archaeologists have unearthed “recycling sites” outside the walls of ancient Pompeii, showing the Pompeiians once recycled trash in an a very effective manner. Pictured: shot of the ruins with Mount Vesuvius in the background. Source: dbvirago / Adobe stock
By Ashley Cowie