Published: 20/01/2021 By The Abode TeamA "fast food" shop from the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, which was destroyed in a volcanic eruption almost 2,000 years ago, is to open to the public - for viewings only – in 2021. Pandemic permitting.
The food counter, known as a thermopolium, which comes from the Greek “thermos” for hot and “poleo” to sell – was very popular in the Roman world. Pompeii alone had around 80, it would have served hot food and drinks to locals in the city. The shop, with its bright frescoes and terracotta jars, was discovered in 2019.
Pompeii was engulfed by a volcanic eruption from Mount Vesuvius in AD79. The eruption buried the city in a thick layer of ash, preserving the city and the outlines of many of its residents in time, and making it a rich source for archaeologists. The paintings found at the site are believed to show some of the food that was on offer to customers, including chicken and duck. Traces of pork, fish, snails and beef were also discovered in jars and other containers.
The director of the Pompeii archaeological park, Massimo Ossana, told the Reuters news agency that the discovery was "extraordinary". "It's the first time we are excavating an entire termopolium," he said. The site, which lies around 23km (14 miles) to the south-east of Naples, is currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the park hopes to reopen by Easter.
A segment of the fast-food counter was partially dug up in 2019 during work to shore up Pompeii’s oft-crumbling ruins. Since then, archaeologists kept digging, revealing a multi-sided-counter, with typical wide holes inserted into its top. The countertop held deep vessels for hot foods, not unlike soup containers nestled into modern-day salad bars.
Plant and animal specialists are still analyzing remains from the site, with its counter frescoed with a figure of an undersea nymph astride a horse. Images of two upside-down mallards and a rooster, whose plumage was painted with the typical vivid color known as Pompeiian red, also brightened the eatery and likely served to advertise the menu.
Another fresco depicted a dog on a leash, perhaps not unlike modern reminders to leash pets. Vulgar graffiti were inscribed on the painting’s frame. Valeria Amoretti, a Pompeii staff anthropologist, said “initial analyses confirm how the painted images represent, at least in part, the foods and beverages effectively sold inside.” Her statement noted that duck bone fragment was found in one of the containers, along with remains from goats, pigs, fish and snails. At the bottom of a wine container were traces of ground fava beans, which in ancient times were added to wine for flavor and to lighten its color, Amoretti said. “We know what they were eating that day,” said Osanna, referring to the day of Pompeii’s destruction in 79 A.D. The food remains indicated “what was popular with the common folk,” noting that street-food places weren’t frequented by the Roman elite.
One surprise find was the complete skeleton of a dog. The discovery intrigued the excavators, since it wasn’t a “large, muscular dog like that painted on the counter but of an extremely small example” of an adult dog, whose height at shoulder level was 20-to-25 centimeters (8-to-10 inches), Amoretti said. It’s rather rare, Amoretti said, to find remains from ancient times of such small dogs, discoveries that “attest to selective breeding in the Roman epoch to obtain this result.”
Also unearthed were a bronze ladle, nine amphorae, which were popular food containers in Roman times, a couple of flasks and a ceramic oil container. Successful restaurateurs know that a good location can be crucial, and the operator of this ancient fast-food seemed to have found a good spot on the busy intersection of Silver Wedding Street and the Alley of Balconies. Osanna noted that right outside the eatery was a small square with a fountain, with another thermopolium in the vicinity.
Human remains were also discovered in the excavation of the eatery. Those bones were apparently disturbed in the 17th century during clandestine excavations by thieves looking for valuables, Pompeii authorities said. Some of the bones belonged to a man, who, when the Vesuvius volcano erupted, appeared to have been lying on a bed or a cot, since nails and pieces of wood were found under his body, authorities said. Other human remains were found inside one of the counter’s vessels, possibly placed there by those excavators centuries ago.
Pompeii was destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which is near present-day Naples. Around a third of the ancient city has not yet been uncovered and finds from the site continue to emerge.