A snack bar has been fully excavated, complete with food residues, vibrant images, and victims of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E. It is re-opening to serve food to a new generation.
Before Mt. Vesuvius erupted, the city of Pompeii housed 10,000 to 20,000 people, including many wealthy Romans who owned summer homes there. Among the other activities of daily life, the residents of Pompeii would often eat out. There were as many as 80 Thermopolia (snack bars) in the city.
The Archaeological Park of Pompeii has announced that the Thermopolium of Regio V, a snack bar located between Vicolo delle Nozze d’Argento and Vicolo dei Balconi, has been fully excavated. The decorations include an image of a Nereid (sea nymph) astride a sea-horse, and an illustration that appears to be a trademark picture of the shop itself. Amphorae (two-handled clay jar) found in front of the counter are decorated with smaller versions of the same image.
The last section of the counter shows pictures of the animals that were sold there, mallard ducks and a rooster. Laboratory analysis confirmed a fragment of duck bone in one of the dolia jars found embedded in the counter. Other jars contained goats, fish, pig, and land snails. A wine jar was found to contain broken or ground beans, which researchers believe were used to bleach the wine and alter its taste.
As Hershel Shanks wrote in “The Destruction of Pompeii—God’s Revenge?” (Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 2010), Mt. Vesuvius eruption came only nine years or so after the Romans had destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Though a substantial Jewish community had been in Rome itself for some two hundred years, as well as large communities in other Mediterranean holdings of the Roman Empire, most Romans would not have made any connection. However, the Sybilline Oracles did reference smoking ashes and showers falling from heaven as “the wrath of the heavenly God.” And at least one Pompeiian, returning to survey the destruction of his home city, scratched “SODOM GOMOR[RAH]” on a surviving wall.
Massimo Osanna, Interim Director General of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, explained the importance of the recent excavations: “The possibilities for study of this Thermopolium are exceptional, because for the first time an area of this type has been excavated in its entirety, and it has been possible to carry out all the analyses that today’s technology permits.” He believes analysis will reveal much more about the normal diet of the people of Pompeii.
Among the other finds was a complete skeleton of a dog. Unlike the intimidating guard dog depicted on the Restaurant’s image, the bones were of an adult dog whose shoulder was only eight to ten inches high. This is a rare indication that the extreme breeding of pet dogs was undertaken in Roman society 2,000 years ago.
There were also human bones found, though those had been moved by lawbreaking 17th-century tunnelers who had been looking for precious objects to sell. One individual, at least fifty years old, had been in bed when Pompeii was destroyed. Another individual’s bones were apparently moved into a large jar by the earlier tunnelers.
The Archaeological Park of Pompeii is continuing laboratory analysis, and will probably continue to announce further discoveries. Read their announcement here. In August of 2021, the Guardian reported that the Thermopolium would be opening to the public, serving food to tourists, just as it did in Pompeii before the eruption of Vesuvius.
This post first appeared in Bible History Daily in December, 2020.
Biblical Archaeology 101: The Ancient Diet of Roman Palestine by Susan Weingarten. What did people eat in Roman Palestine? The Mishnah, Tosefta, and Talmuds—compilations of Jewish laws and lore written by rabbis from the third to the seventh centuries C.E. in Palestine and Babylonia—are rich sources of information about everyday life, including many details about food. Looking at them, together with the archaeological evidence, gives us an excellent picture of everyday food eaten in Late Antique Palestine.
The Roman Amphora: Learning from storage jars by Elizabeth Lyding Will. I have spent the better part of my professional life studying the lowly Roman amphora—a two-handled clay jar used by the Canaanites, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans to ship goods. What would Harvard professor Charles Eliot Norton, who founded the Archaeological Institute of America in 1879, have thought about my archaeological tastes? Norton wanted archaeology, especially Greek archaeology, to uplift Americans morally and aesthetically through the study of elegant ancient artifacts.
Saved from Vesuvius by Judith Harris. Herculaneum and Pompeii were both destroyed by the same eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. For archaeologists, however, it must seem that they were leveled by different volcanoes entirely. Pompeii was smothered beneath a shallow blanket of volcanic pebbles (lapillae) and dust. It has been relatively easy to excavate, and today two-thirds of the ancient city is visible to modern visitors. Herculaneum, on the other hand, was buried alive.
How to Find a Brothel in Pompeii by Thomas A.J. McGinn. Pompeii’s material remains, frozen in time by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, offer an unparalleled look at what a first-century A.D. Roman city was like. We are all familiar with Pompeii’s lavish villas and colorful wall paintings—some of which, wrote a bashful Mark Twain, “no pen could have the hardihood to describe.” But it wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s that scholars began to pay serious attention to some important evidence of everyday life in Pompeii—evidence suggesting how these ancient Italians actually lived.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.