Pompeii has always been a magical place for me with its vast avenues and huge government buildings, small familiar houses and gardens and, of course, the mummified bodies of town citizens, immortalised as they went about their normal lives when the volcano blew on that summer afternoon in 79AD.
Now we’re finding out more about what ordinary people ate, after archaeologists from the Pompeii Archaeological Research Project carried out a detailed analysis of food waste found in a busy street – a street with 20 shop fronts mainly selling food and drink and populated by non-elite working citizens.
In the residue of drains and excrement archaeologists found grains, fruit, nuts, olives, lentils, fish, chicken, meat, eggs, shellfish, sea urchins and even a butchered leg of giraffe (the first example of its kind excavated in Italy). There was salted fish from Spain and, the archaeologists say, spices from as far afield as Indonesia.
So what is the Pompeian diet and what does it tell us about our own eating habits – aside from giraffe being strictly off the menu?
Food is a social event
In the modern developed world, food no longer only means survival – we eat for so many reasons other than biological hunger and the drive to stay alive. Food means celebration; a cake for a birthday treat and a family get together over the holidays. It’s a comfort when feeling fed up, a pick-you-up when down, and a useful distraction when a boring task just needs to be done. And it’s also a sign of love, sexuality, control and power.
Back in 79AD it would seem the people of Pompeii felt the same. The food found by the archaeologists wasn’t the fossilised gruel or scraps of meat that some have expected of lower-class Romans, but a wide array of local and imported foods that form the basis of social gatherings and family meals.
These people were not the rich or elite but food still played a central role in their social and probably emotional lives. Perhaps food has been part of our social world for longer than we sometimes think. The Pompeians also loved food (and sex) but their 2000-year-old diet shows it had a lot more variety.
Variety is the spice of life
Over the past 30 years I’ve watched as the experts argue over what we should be eating. Is fat, sugar, carbohydrate or salt the real culprit for all our modern-day illnesses and if so, which types should we eat or avoid: saturated, unsaturated, animal, vegetable, simple or complex?
Everyone (including me) has a view about what constitutes the best diet, and as we find out more about the healthiness or not of different foodstuffs and amounts debates will no doubt continue. What they did know – which we don’t always seem to do some 2,000 years later – is the importance of variety.
We may not be certain about what we should be eating but we probably have a greater chance of getting it right if we have a good variety – a “balanced diet”. And in all its rich glory, from the sea urchins and giraffe leg to simple olives and nuts, the Pompeii discovery shows that even less well-off citizens had variety in their diet.
We eat what’s there
Nowadays, with our fast and busy lives packed with multi-tasking and information from all angles, we’re at risk of sticking with what we know and limiting our food intake to what is most easy. And what is most easy now, is what the food industry wants us to eat.
If our shops offer grab bags, duo bars and ready meals then that is what we will eat, and archaeologists of the future will certainly have a much less varied and interesting time going through many of our drains when the time comes.
But we can choose to eat differently. The Pompeians no doubt ate what was available. But perhaps today’s Mediterranean diet offers a more contemporary comparison of real food culture over fast food folly.
The cost of food
At the turn of the 20th century, the rich were fat and the poor were thin. One hundred years later this has reversed; obesity is clearly a class issue and the cost of food is seen as a cause of poor diets. The balanced diet that dietitians recommend – high in fruit and vegetables, low in fat – costs too much for some. But the working class people of Pompeii, on this normal street, seemed to manage it – although there are clear indications from comparisons between scraps from shops and neighbours that there were some socio-economic differences in the amount of variety.
But the discovery shows a balance of ingredients all ready to be cooked up into a healthy meal whereas ours is a selection of ready meals and takeaways all waiting to be peeled open and heated up.
Ingredients are still relatively cheap. We pay a premium for the processing, preparation and packaging. Perhaps if we ate the ingredients of the shops of Pompeii rather than the meals of the modern high street our money would go further and obesity would be less of a financial issue.
From giraffe leg to chicken drumstick?
It may not be fair to say that in under 2,000 years we’ve moved from giraffe leg to deep fried chicken legs. Giraffe leg may well have been a special treat in Pompeii, much as we might have a prime cut for a Sunday lunch. But it’s clear that we need to make better choices if we’re to tackle obesity and ill health from our diets.
Some look to the past for what is true and better. Others to show progress and how lucky we are. Pompeii can be said to offer us both. But the archaeological findings from food waste give us a glimpse into a world without ready meals, hydrogenated oils and processed meats.
And perhaps by understanding how we eat, what we eat and how we can make it better, we might prevent our own modern health disaster – and future archaeologists left to ponder on what went so very wrong.