Pompeii Foodies Ate Giraffe
January 2, 2014

Pompeii Foodies Chowed Down On Giraffe

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Archeologists from the University of Cincinnati working in and around Pompeii will be presenting new details this week on what citizens of the ancient Roman city typically ate, which included such exotic fare like giraffe.

UC researchers have been working for over a decade to uncover an area that includes 10 separate building plots and 20 shop fronts, most of which served food and beverages. By analyzing preserved food waste from the area, the study team found that wealthy Romans dined on flamingos and other delicacies, while the poor scavenged for soup or gruel.

The researchers examined samples taken from drains, latrines and cesspits, which included mineralized and charred food waste as well as preserved feces. Among the finds were an abundance of the remains of fully-processed foods.

“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,” said Steven Ellis, a University of Cincinnati associate professor of classics who will present the findings at the joint annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) and American Philological Association (APA) in Chicago.

The archeologists found widely-available foods such as grains, fruits, nuts, olives, lentils, local fish, chicken eggs, minimal cuts of more expensive meat and salted fish. One central drain revealed an even wider range of foods, such as shellfish, sea urchin and the butchered leg joint of a giraffe.

“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.”

He noted that the remains date as far back as the 4th century, an early stage in the development of Pompeii that has produced very few decent finds.

“The ultimate aim of our research is to reveal the structural and social relationships over time between working-class Pompeian households, as well as to determine the role that sub-elites played in the shaping of the city, and to register their response to city-and Mediterranean-wide historical, political and economic developments,” Ellis said. “However, one of the larger datasets and themes of our research has been diet and the infrastructure of food consumption and food ways.”

“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,” he added.

The ancient town was made famous by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, which destroyed and buried the city under 13 to 20 feet of ash and pumice.