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Part of the Novae Roman military camp. (Kleo73 / CC BY-SA 3.0) Insert: Ancient Roman fridge found at the site. Source: P. Dyczek / PAP

Ancient Fridge Unearthed at Roman Military Camp in Bulgaria Kept Food Cool


Polish archaeologists excavating a Roman military camp in Bulgaria expected to discover some coins; and they weren’t really surprised by the hoards of day-to-day tools and the expansive ancient water system they unearthed. But they didn’t, however, reckon on unearthing an ancient stone ‘fridge’ complete with dishes, bones and even insect repellent!

Nicknamed “the phalanx of Alexander the Great,” with a boar as an emblem and an eagle as its standard, Legio I Italica was the First Italian Legion of the Imperial Roman army. Founded by emperor Nero on September 22, 66 AD, Legio I Italica built their main base at Novae, near modern-day Svishtov (Bulgaria) on the Lower Danube limes in the province of Moesia inferior.

Now, a team of archaeologists led by Professor Piotr Dyczek from the University of Warsaw’s Antiquity of Southeastern Europe Research Centre, has excavated the camp revealing a troupe of ancient tools, coins, and even an ancient stone fridge.

Ancient Roman “fridge” found at Novae Roman settlement, Bulgaria. (P. Dyczek / PAP)

Ancient Roman “fridge” found at Novae Roman settlement, Bulgaria. (P. Dyczek / PAP)

Relics From Tumultuous Times

The Roman empire invaded neighboring Dacia at the beginning of the 2nd century AD, attempting to take control of the valuable Carpathian gold mines. Professor Dyczek said the location of the Roman camp was chosen on the border of the empire to defend against the neighboring Dacia which proposed a constant threat.

The first Italic legion was stationed in Novae until the middle of the 5th century and for the last 40 years teams of Polish and Bulgarian archaeologists have been studying Roman archaeology in the region. The latest team of archaeologists revealed the foundations of house walls. Inside, they discovered spindle whorls for making yarns, quern-stones for grinding wheat into flour and collections of lead fishing weights.

Digging down, the researchers found deep pits containing fragmented clay vessels and animal bones. They also discovered a collection of rare coins dating to the 3rd and 4th centuries when the Goths, another enemy, invaded the empire.

An ancient oil lamp found at Novae. (Janusz Recław / CC BY-SA 4.0)

An ancient oil lamp found at Novae. (Janusz Recław / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ancient Fridges Are Rarely Discovered

Professor Dyczek told Science In Poland that the most unexpected discovery at the recent digs was a stone food storage unit which he described as a “fridge.” Built with ceramic plates, the fridge contained the remains of animal bones and clay dishes. Furthermore, a small ceramic bowl contained the remains of “a censer” which was used to repel insects.

Closer inspection of the animal bones showed they had been “thermally treated.” In layman's terms, this simply means that the animal meat had been baked before being stored in the fridge. According to Professor Dyczek, refrigerators “are seldom found because they rarely survive building reconstructions.”

The Waters Of Life And Death

Moving outwards from the camp, the archaeologists identified fragments of ceramic and lead water pipes. Dyczek said lead pipes are “rarely preserved” because they were most often re-used by later cultures.

Many historians argue that because the Romans cooked and drank water from lead pipes channeled from local springs “lead poisoning plagued the Roman elite with diseases such as gout and hastened the empire's fall.” According to Professor Hugo Delile’s 2014 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled Lead in ancient Rome’s city waters tap water from ancient Rome “likely contained up to 100 times more lead than local spring water.”

The Poor Old Danube Was Another Roman Enemy

The Novae Roman camp water supplies were stored in two huge, lined tanks located just outside the main camp. But the water was not taken from the nearby Danube for it was heavily polluted at that time, rather, it was channeled from the source of the Dermen River. This required a 10 kilometer (6.21 mile) long aqueduct to distribute the water through the complex, which the archaeologists have charted.

Further water channels were identified connecting the camp with the Danube. It appears that once the soldiers and elites had bathed in the heated waters, and after foods had been cooked, the grey, lead polluted water was flushed into the already heavily polluted Danube. And not much has changed today, for according to a recent study, the Danube is the most polluted river with antibiotics in Europe, “with seven antibiotics surpassing the safety threshold.”

Novae Roman ruins along the Danube in Svishtov, Bulgaria. (countries in colors / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Novae Roman ruins along the Danube in Svishtov, Bulgaria. (countries in colors / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The irony here is complete. While the Romans developed stone food storage fridges to safeguard against consuming toxins, at the same time they were poisoning themselves and the environment with lead-infused water.

Top Image: Part of the Novae Roman military camp. (Kleo73 / CC BY-SA 3.0) Insert: Ancient Roman fridge found at the site. Source: P. Dyczek / PAP

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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