The View from the Sewers: Food and Diet in Herculaneum

This week, Year Eight Latinists were visited by Dr Erica Rowan from Royal Holloway, University of London. Erica is an archaeobotanist, who researched the remains of plants in Herculaneum for her doctorate. Through this, she was able to find out more about what people ate and drank around the time of the eruption which buried the city, what fuel they burnt, and a range of other information which has helped to deepen understanding of daily life and activity in this ancient city.

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Erica explained that there were different ways that plant remains could be preserved – they could be carbonised or dessicated, for example. She had spent her excavation visits exploring a particular sewer which had been built as part of a large apartment block, which housed shops as well as living accommodation. The sewer was drained into by several toilet units which were located at the front of the building, right next to the street. These toilets were essentially holes, down which residents and shop owners through cooking waste (including broken pots and similar items) as well as human waste. This meant that underneath the material gradually decomposed, and slaves would have to go down and shovel it all out from time to time!

We were shown the flotation process by which archaeobotanists separate out the material they want to study. Then we looked at the sorts of items that were found. Thousands of small fragments of olive stones were found (but only 88 whole stones), suggesting that the stones were not from olives that were being eaten, but instead from olives which had been pressed to make oil. It turns out that the products made from making olive oil had been used for fuel. This was interesting in a site where there were plenty of forests with wood to burn for fuel. Other food items found included dates, lentils, apples, pears, figs – in fact 37 different varieties of plant have been discovered, indicating a very varied diet.

Some especially interesting items included peppercorn, which came from India, which would have been a year long trip to reach Herculaneum on the trade routes and return again. This was a high status item that might have been brought out at a dinner party to impress the guests. Other examples include the occasional use of goose eggs.

Erica also gave us a brief overview of the site of Herculaneum – how it was buried under ash that turned, effectively, to concrete and buried the city much more deeply than Pompeii. People had to tunnel their way to the city underneath. A theatre has been found, but no forum has yet been discovered (although it is almost certain that one does lie underneath the ash).

We are very grateful to Erica for such an interesting and wide-ranging introduction to the diet and daily life of Herculaneum explored through the fascinating field of archaeobotany.

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