For several years, archaeologists working at the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii have been treated to some extraordinary finds. And digs which began in 2018 at one particular part of the well-preserved city have produced spectacular artworks, along with human remains. Yet in March 2019 another find was announced, but this one was specifically indicative of the everyday eating habits of that time and place.
The ruins of Pompeii are among the most unique and interesting in the whole world. Situated in the south of Italy – not far from Naples – Pompeii was once a popular holiday destination in the ancient Roman world. And on top of that, it was home to some 20,000 inhabitants.
But way back in the year 79 A.D., a catastrophic natural event altered the course of Pompeii’s history for good. Experts estimate that up to 16,000 people were killed in total, and the city became uninhabitable from that point on. Then, as the subsequent years and centuries passed by, Pompeii was forgotten.
For just under 1,700 years, Pompeii lay in complete obscurity, buried under volcanic ash. But in 1748 the site was rediscovered by a surveying engineer, which would have been an exciting development because the city had been preserved in remarkably vivid detail.
Many of the buildings in Pompeii were still standing, while human remains and commonplace objects were spread about the place. In essence, the untouched ruins were presenting the ancient Romans’ way of life. And even now – over 270 years after the city’s rediscovery – archaeologists continue making discoveries which teach us more about that time period.
The event which led to Pompeii being frozen in this way was the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius. This landform – which today stands less than six miles from Naples – is known as a stratovolcano. In basic terms, this refers to a type of volcano defined by steep sides and a crater at its top.
Mount Vesuvius stands at just over 4,200 feet, and it is quite a volatile landform, having erupted on numerous occasions. In fact, the volcano has even been active in relatively recent times, such as in 1906, when over 100 people died as a result of an eruption.
Around this time, preparations were under way in Italy for the 1908 Summer Olympics. This event was set to take place in Rome, but the eruption meant that things didn’t pan out this way. Naples and other areas surrounding Vesuvius had been heavily damaged by the eruption. And so funds intended for the games were instead diverted to repairing the region. As a result, the Olympics subsequently took place in London, England.
Then in 1944 during World War II another eruption of Vesuvius ended up ruining a number of Italian villages. An American air force unit was also stationed in the vicinity of Vesuvius when it exploded, and up to 88 aircraft were apparently wiped out.
And the eruptions of Vesuvius are likely to continue into the future. In fact, it’s broadly considered to be among the more threatening volcanoes on Earth. After all, around three million people live near the mountain, so the potentially devastating consequences of another major eruption are very real.
The eruption for which Mount Vesuvius is most well-known, however, remains the one which occurred in 79 A.D. Now considered to be among the most lethal eruptions in the history of Europe, the precise month in which this event took place is today disputed. A number of dates have been posited, including those within August, October and November.
In any case, the eruption itself was devastating, sending a huge cloud of volcanic material high into the atmosphere. Hot ash, rock and gas filled the air, and it was apparently visible from hundreds of miles away. The only firsthand account of the catastrophe comes from Roman writer Pliny the Younger, who viewed it from a distance of some 18 miles afield.
Pliny later recorded his observations of the event, and described the cloud of volcanic material arising from Vesuvius. He wrote, “Its general appearance can best be expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches.”
“In places [the cloud] looked white, elsewhere blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it,” Pliny continued. Nowadays, such volcanic blasts are known as Plinian eruptions, which consist of gas-driven eruptions and a significant discharge of volcanic rock known as pumice.
The cloud of volcanic material eventually started to descend from the sky. And soon, ash and rock began to blanket the surface below. Many people apparently managed to escape from Pompeii around this time – though not everyone left.
The air engulfing the people of Pompeii had been compromised as a result of the cloud of volcanic material, causing people down below to choke. On top of that, some manmade structures started to weaken and ultimately give way.
In his writings, Pliny the Younger detailed the terror inflicted upon victims of the eruption. He wrote, “You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices.”
“People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying,” Pliny continued. “Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.”
Eventually, the final blow was struck upon Pompeii. A lethal mix of extraordinarily hot rock and gas known as a pyroclastic surge flew down the mountain at 100 miles per hour and covered the city. This would have destroyed or damaged buildings and snuffed out any individuals caught up in it.
The eruption eventually ceased, but Pompeii had been left uninhabitable. Millions of tons of volcanic material covered the city, which ultimately meant it would be preserved for centuries to come. But in the aftermath of the eruption, Pompeii was forced to be abandoned, and eventually it was completely forgotten.
When the city once again came to the attention of people in 1748, it represented an opportunity for archaeologists to peer directly into ancient Roman life. Excavations began in earnest over the following decades, and though useful from a historical perspective, they were ultimately damaging to the ruins themselves.
Before the city was rediscovered, it had been protected from exposure to air and dampness by the ash layer. But when archaeological works began on the site, the ruins were left vulnerable to the elements, putting what remains of Pompeii and the artifacts within it at serious risk.
After poorly executed works during the 1980s and ‘90s, restrictions were imposed upon archaeologists working on Pompeii. Furthermore, an initiative known as the Great Pompeii Project aims to protect the ruins from further decay. Yet despite the limitations placed upon it, more works have been under way in recent times.
Since 2018 archaeological operations have been taking place in a section of Pompeii referred to as Regio V. This specific zone covers an area of Pompeii that amounts to just under 54 acres. And as a result of the excavations taking place here, several significant discoveries have been announced.
Finds in 2018 included a Pompeian home with an intricate shrine inside, along with beautifully preserved mosaics and the remains of a horse. But according to Massimo Osanna – the man who leads works at the site – the most interesting discovery that year was something else entirely.
Osanna was referring to a discovery made in May 2018 by archaeologist Teresa Virtuoso, who recovered a man’s skeleton in Regio V. It appeared that this individual had tried – and ultimately failed – to escape the danger of Mount Vesuvius’ eruption. And this, it seems, left an impact upon his discoverer.
Speaking to The Guardian in December 2018, Virtuoso reflected on what it meant to her. She said, “It made me think about the eruption and how afraid this man must have been as he ran. He was also found in an area that suffered most of Vesuvius’ damage; it would have been impossible to survive.”
The man, thought to have been in his mid-30s, was discovered along with a little bag filled with coins. And even though he was found with his head stuck under a heavy boulder, it’s thought that he actually died as a result of the gases released in the wake of Vesuvius’ eruption.
In addition to Virtuoso, Massimo Osanna also spoke to the Guardian about his thoughts on the discovery of the skeleton. He told the paper, “The man with the block on his head, it was astonishing, and the first time we found a victim that was so contextualized.”
And as works continued into 2019, the exciting discoveries from Regio V continued. In February, for example, archaeologists announced that excavations of a Pompeiian property had revealed a painting of the mythical Narcissus. According to ancient legend, Narcissus was so enamored with his personal appearance that he melted from a fire of passion burning inside his body.
And then, towards the end of March, another fascinating discovery came out of Regio V. A place known as a thermopolium – translated as “a place where something hot is sold” – had been found. In other words, experts had found what was essentially an ancient fast food joint.
Thermopolia were by no means uncommon throughout ancient Rome – within the ruins of Pompeii alone there are about 80 such establishments documented. In ancient times, these were important places for the less affluent members of Roman society, who would frequent them in absence of their own personal kitchens.
Despite their prevalence throughout Pompeii and ancient Rome, interim director Alfonsina Russo believed that the latest thermopolium was important. She told Pompeiisites.org, “Even if structures like these are well known at Pompeii, discovering more of them, along with objects which went hand in hand with commercial and thus daily life, continues to transmit powerful emotions that transport us to those tragic moments of the eruption…”
For its part, a thermopolium generally would have been a room of modest size, containing a countertop. Within this surface, a number of jars known as dolia were inbuilt. These would have been utilized for the sake of holding dry foodstuff such as nuts. Some of the snazzier thermopolia would have been adorned with paintings – as was the case with the one found in 2019.
One of the painted images in this particular thermopolium presented the likeness of a Nereid riding on top of a horse. The beautifully designed scene appears to have been based within a dark blue aquatic setting. And this would make sense, because according to ancient mythology, Nereids are supernatural beings closely associated with the ocean.
Elsewhere upon the walls of the thermopolium, another painting depicted a scene which may typically have taken place there. The image showed a person inside a thermopolium – reflecting what may have actually occurred inside. The painted figure is surrounded by containers which are known as amphorae.
Real-life amphorae were actually found inside the thermopolium as well. This, it seems, reinforces the theory that the painting had been a depiction of the genuine goings-on of the premises. As a result, experts have suggested that the artwork may have served as something of a shop sign for the ancient food establishment.
Naturally, the discovery of this ancient fast food joint adds further clarity to the overall understanding of ancient Roman life in Pompeii. And with excavations of Regio V regularly producing discoveries for historians to pore over, insights into the period are sure to become sharper. Nevertheless, the site itself needs to be maintained in a stringent and appropriate manner.
Massimo Osanna is wary of allowing the quality of the site’s management to return to its formerly lackluster standards. He told The Guardian, “It doesn’t take much to slip backwards. Previously there was a problem with supervision, but we need to be constantly monitoring.”
The archaeologist is particularly incensed by tourists who seem not to appreciate the unique and delicate nature of the ruins. Osanna continued, “You get those who climb on top of pillars to take selfies – it makes me so angry. The problem is stupidity, not understanding how fragile and unique Pompeii is.”