Since excavations of Pompeii began in 1748, many aspects of the ancient civilization buried in ash and rock have emerged. The excavations and discoveries accelerated since 2012 with the Great Pompeii Project that continue to provide archaeologists and historians with clues about how residents lived, dressed and ate.
Along the streets of Pompeii were found shops and workshops offering everything imaginable from arts and crafts to hardware and tools. There were wine stores, bakeries, grocers, fruit stores and bakeries, as well as banks, barber shops, brothels, and public baths. The discharge of Vesuvius covered, concealed and preserved the mills, ovens and loaves. Archaeologists found traces of oil in the jugs of olive oil shops and amphoras stacked in the wine stores. They even found evidence of rosemary, garlic, olive oil, cheese and anchovies in the fossilized flatbreads of bakeries.
In total, archaeologists have identified about 160 properties that they believe were bars and restaurants. In October 2020, an extraordinary thermopolium emerged from the excavations. This is a shop that is similar to what we would call a diner or snack bar today. It served “street food” popular in A.D. 79 from a counter with submerged pots of ready-made food. While about 80 thermopolii have been found at Pompeii (and many more will be found), this one is notable for its state of preservation, for the exceptional nature of the painted counter and for the fresh clues it provides about the ancient population’s culinary tastes.
The high quality of the painted panels on the front of a Z-shaped counter include a central image of a Nereid, the mythological sea nymph, riding a sea horse, along with frescoes of a dog on a leash, a rooster and ducks upside down and ready to be eaten. According to archaeologists, the images represent, in part, a kind of menu available to customers. There was also a painted image of a thermopolium, complete with amphorae and jars.
At lunch the people of Pompeii ate in the street and in a hurry as neither tables nor chairs were available in a thermopolium. They mostly ate focaccia, flat bread, olives and jugs of wine. Archaeologists are examining the contents of the dolia, the terracotta containers, in the countertops and are also finding a menu based on mammals, birds, fish and snails. While the contents of some dolia remain to be analyzed, they found in one dolium a pork and fish combination, a sort of paella but without rice, which the ancient Romans did not eat. In another they found a concoction involving snails, fish and sheep, perhaps a soup or stew.
Pompeii remains a powerful symbol of the power of nature and the transience of life. But the force of Vesuvius has also preserved for future generations the fascinating lifestyle of ancient Romans. The excavation of this thermopolium is expected to finish in March 2021 and to be available to visitors by Easter, the coronavirus permitting.
(See also the 3-part series of posts on Pompeii: Pompeii and a Legacy of Disasters, 1/24/2019; The Great Pompeii Project, 1/31/2019; Extraordinary Discoveries in Pompeii in 2018, 2/7/2019.)