Let’s start 2021 off with a bang, with news that, unfortunately, also started with a bang, way back in 79 CE. That was the year of the notorious Mt. Vesuvius eruption, that buried the Roman town of Pompeii in layers of hot ash and pumice, erasing it from the Italian landscape and preserving the artifacts of its last day for nearly 2000 years. Archaeologists have long studied this slice of historical life (as well as that of the neighbouring buried settlement, Herculaneum), leaving the excavated ruins open for tourists to visit.
But a tonne of Pompeii is still buried and off-limits to all but researchers. Recently, a team digging in the Regio V section of the site turned up a fabulous find: a thermopolium, or essentially, an ancient Roman lunch counter. Pompeii is dotted with the remains of these establishments — L-shaped counters with amphorae, once full of hot local fare ready for dishing out to hungry passersby, sunken into them. But the Regio V shop is the first to be uncovered whole, with even its gorgeous counter frescoes — advertising the fresh ingredients! — intact.
“Traces of nearly 2,000-year-old food were found in some of the deep terra cotta jars containing hot food which the shop keeper lowered into a counter with circular holes.
The front of the counter was decorated with brightly coloured frescoes, some depicting animals that were part of the ingredients in the food sold, such as a chicken and two ducks hanging upside down.
‘This is an extraordinary find. It’s the first time we are excavating an entire [thermopolium],’ said Massimo Ossana, director of the Pompeii archaeological park.
Archaeologists also found a decorated bronze drinking bowl known as a patera, ceramic jars used for cooking stews and soups, wine flasks and amphora.”
The researchers are eager to learn more about the Roman diet from traces left at this thermopolium. (Already, they’ve uncovered evidence that pork, fish, beef, and snails were on the menu.) I find my fascination tempered by a sense of sadness: a lunch counter is exactly the kind of regular-Joe detail that makes me think of the people who lived next to it, maybe even popped by for a bite every day — until one day they didn’t. I hope science uncovers much more about ancient Roman city life, down to how they did their street food. Not only does it fill in some gaps in history, but it’s also a way of keeping the last happy, delicious moments of Pompeii’s citizens alive.