Archaeologists excavate ancient Roman takeout counter at Pompeii
December 28, 2020
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Archaeologists excavate ancient Roman takeout counter at Pompeii

Pompeii Archaeological Park/Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism/Luigi Spina/Handout via REUTERS

A recently-unearthed termopolium, or “hot drinks counter” served up ancient Roman street food—and plenty of wine—to the people of northeast Pompeii in the days before Mount Vesuvius destroyed the city in a cataclysmic 79 CE eruption. Painted bright yellow and decorated with detailed frescoes, the counter would have been a quick stop for hot, ready-made food and drinks. And the small shop still holds the remains of its proprietor and perhaps one of its last customers.

Archaeologists found the bones of at least two people in the termopolium. It’s difficult to say much about who they were or what they were doing when they died, because looters in the 1600s shoved the skeletons haphazardly out of their way, leaving one scattered around the room and parts of the other stuffed into a large dolium, or serving jar. The scattered set of bones mostly belonged to someone at least 50 years old, who may have been laying in bed when the pyroclastic flow swept through town. Space in the shop is set aside for storing a bed, and archaeologists found nails and wood residue under the scattered remains.

Ancient fast food

The termopolium is a surprisingly modern setup—or maybe it’s more accurate to say that modern quick-serve restaurants are based on a surprisingly ancient model. Food was displayed in deep terracotta jars called dolia, set into holes in the top of the counter, just like plastic or metal tubs set into the counter hold ingredients at Subway or Chipotle today. Presumably the jars could be removed and stored at the end of the day. Archaeologists also found ceramic cooking jars, flasks and amphorae for storing wine, and a bronze drinking bowl.

Grabbing a takeout meal at a food counter like this one, or sitting down to eat at a local taberna, would have part of the daily routine for most people in a Roman city like Pompeii. Today, we think of eating out as a pricey convenience or a splurge, but for most people in Roman cities, cooking at home wasn’t a practical option. Most city-dwellers lived in apartment buildings called insulae, and although they usually had a hearth for warming and simple cooking, they didn’t have full kitchens.

Like the food counter, apartment blocks are a surprisingly old idea. In cities like Rome, Pompeii, and Naples, insulae were popular real estate investments for the wealthy. And just like in the modern world, ancient Roman landlords often skimped on a construction and maintenance to pad their profit margins. The lower floor of each building would usually feature shops, taverns, and restaurants, and the most expensive apartments would occupy the next few floors. Apartments on the upper stories, which were smaller and took several flights of stairs to reach, were the cheapest.

And all of those insula residents had to eat, so they headed to brightly-painted termopolia and tabernas (hot drinks counters and pubs) for their meals. At its height, just before Mount Vesuvius buried everything in ash, Pompeii’s streets featured at least 80 termopolia serving up cheap, relatively simple but surprisingly diverse fare. Bread and cheese would have been staples, along with lentils, cheese, beef, and chicken. Soups and stews would have been common, too, and most counters would have served wine and beer.

In jars at the newly-excavated termopolium, archaeologists found the long-expired remains of the establishment’s last set of daily specials: fragments of bone from ducks, pigs, goats and fish, along with the remains of land snails. (One of these things is not like the others.) The ancient food remains are “a testimony to the great diversity of animal products used to prepare dishes,” site archaeologists Valeria Amoretti told Reuters.

At least some of the colorful frescoes painted on the front and sides of the zigzag-shaped counter may display menu offerings: two of the painted panels display a rooster and a pair of ducks hanging upside down. Archaeologists say the animals would have been butchered on-site, then cooked and served. One fresco depicts a termopolium in business.

Another panel feature an unfriendly-looking dog on a chain, which may have been meant as a warning to would-be robbers. Yet another thing that’s not new: some disgruntled customer or employee scratched a rude message onto the black border around the painting: NICIA CINAEDE CACATOR, or “Nicias, shameless shitter!” Obscene graffiti seems to have been a popular pastime in the ancient Roman world, and Pompeii has offered up numerous creative examples. In a corner of the shop, archaeologists found the bones of a small dog, about the size of a modern beagle.

“Although quite rare, dogs of such small size indicate that intentional selection took place in the Roman age in order to obtain such a result,” wrote park officials in a statement.

At the other end of the counter, another painting depicts a sea nymph, or Nereid, riding a sea horse. After nearly 2,000 years, the paintings are still vibrant , and the yellow background is still as bright as any modern fast-food chain. The ancient proprietors decorated the chipped-terracotta floor with bits of colorful marble.

Neighborhood restaurant

Now that the excavation is complete, the lab work can begin. Samples of food remains and other material have been send to multiple universities for more in-depth analysis.

Archaeologists have unearthed traces of at least 80 termopolia like this one in Pompeii, but this is the first one they’ve found intact and managed to completely excavate. It stood on a small public square with a cistern, fountain, and water tower. Not far away, another shop boasted a frescoe of gladiators fighting (point of interest: gladiatorial matches were banned in Pompeii from 59 to 69 CE after a riot broke out during the games). At one end, the square borders the Vicolo dei Balconi, a long alley, lined with the ruins of once-stately houses; their balconies collapsed during the eruption but remain well-preserved, albeit relocated to street level. At an intersection in that alley, archaeologists in 2018 found the skeleton of a man crushed by a large rock during the eruption.

This part of northeast Pompeii is now known to archaeologists as Regio V. It’s the same section of the city where archaeologists unearthed the House of Orion, with elaborate floor mosaics depicting ancient surveying tools and techniques. Regio V forms part of the boundary between the 44 hectares of the ancient city archaeologists have unearthed and the hectares still buried beneath a meters-thick blanket of volcanic ash. That unexplored territory may include at least 7 stray WWII bombs.

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