July 18, 2001
The bustling streets of Pompeii today, teeming with tour groups, are not unlike the streets of the ancient city. Deep cuts in Via Consolare's paving stones mark where the metal-rimmed wooden wheels of carts and carriages once transported people and their wares. Overflow from public and private fountains may have flooded the road. A Pompeian striding down the sidewalk of Regio VI, Insula 1 from the Herculaneum Gate passed an inn, bars, a pair of lavish houses, and more bars. What was the experience of this common Pompeian? Ancient Pompeii was a city not only for the wealthy home-owner who tiptoed across mosaic floors and ate peppered fishes, but also for the freedman who lived in his small shop and bought his food daily.
Pompeian Fast Food
The sight of the bar front is a characteristic one for tourists in Pompeii. But what is a bar? Today we have snack bars, salad bars, tapas bars, and so on. All have a counter where food or drink is sold to small informal groups. In ancient Pompeii, L-shaped counters are found in small properties all along the main roads. The frequency of these counters suggests that food, at least for the middle and lower classes, could have been readily bought at these many bars throughout the city.
Relatively few houses in Pompeii have kitchens. The lavish houses of Pompeii, including both the houses in VI,1 have them, but where did the people who lived in smaller houses, in workshops, or in rented quarters buy their food? Where did the traveler en route through Pompeii grab a bite to eat?
There are four of these bar counters in our area. At the front of these counters are small stone shelves. Here the barkeep may have displayed foods, small vessels, or other wares. Bar counters often have a built-in oven or stove, suggesting the sale of cooked or warmed foods. Three of the four bars in VI,1 have stoves like this. Carbonized finds from nearby Herculaneum show that some bars sold dates, lentils, and other foods.
While each bar has a counter, the arrangement of space within the bar varies. Some are small property units--a single room with a counter and a street-side doorway. More generally, bars include small back rooms, and sometimes even second stories. Such is the case in VI,1, and all four of the bars in VI,1 also have toilets. As for the other rooms, perhaps they served as the barkeep's living quarters or simply his storage. Perhaps they were rented spots for travelers to rest. Maybe they were used for gambling and prostitution. The artifacts and ecofacts we uncover in excavation will help us better understand how these rooms were used.
Bar Archaeology in VI,1
Both tourists and archaeologists identify bars by their counters, but the archaeologists' vision looks across time and recognizes that Pompeian street life developed over centuries. The masonry counters we see today in VI,1 come relatively late in Pompeii's history. The marble counter tops were added during the city's last half-century. Yet even before the presence of these stone counters, these spaces already served as bars. Our work has revealed that nearly 200 years before Vesuvius' eruption, open areas were turned into commercial spaces along the western edge of VI,1. By the end of the second century B.C., the property divisions between the grander domestic and the commercial spaces were drawn. High life and low life existed side-by-side. But very definite limits always separated the two. These boundaries were ultimately fossilized in A.D. 79.
This season we are excavating two bars in VI,1--one at the northern end of the city block and one to the south. The northern bar sits just inside a city gate and fronts onto a major traffic route. A masonry bench beside the bar's entrance provided additional seating and shows the popularity of the establishment. It would have been among the first sights for a visitor arriving in Pompeii and certainly his last chance for a quick warm meal before he hit the road for Herculaneum.
Our current excavation of the sidewalk outside this northern bar will tell us more about the relationship of city traffic to the property. Inside the bar we have found a series of packed earthen surfaces smeared with plaster. Such flooring is rudimentary and utilitarian--in contrast to the impressive mosaics of the House of the Vestals, a few steps farther down the road. One of this week's perspectives focuses on a student's experience excavating these floors.
We are also studying a bar at the opposite end of the insula. Excavation has revealed many structural changes through the bar's history. No fewer than three toilets were in operation at different points in time. A backdoor that once led out onto the side-street behind VI,1 was at some point blocked, and a staircase was subsequently added. This new second story does not survive, but the earlier phases below are beginning to be revealed. These include traces of a stove and a drainage system in one of the backrooms. On the opposite side of this backroom, tucked into a corner, a small vessel was found intact, its lid still in place. This week we feature an excerpt from the journal of the student who excavated the jar.
Pompeii's Hidden History
The bars of VI,1 raise many questions about Pompeii's service industries. Our archaeological focus has broadened from studying the elite and their servants to include all of the people in the city. These were the ordinary people who worked in bars and factories, who ate at the local fast food stop, who slept in their shops or rented rooms. In short, the people who worked in the city and made the city work.
Last Wednesday, we were able to bring this inclusive approach to a wider audience by filming for a new tv documentary. Called The Hidden History of Rome, it is fronted by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. The film imagines what life would have been like for the everyday Marcus, some 60-year-old Pompeian who perished in Vesuvius' eruption. Project director Rick Jones explained to Terry Jones how our insula exemplifies the whole range of Pompeian society. Here we see how a Pompeian neighborhood worked, and so will you when the film is shown on Discovery (USA) in February 2002 and then on Discovery (Europe) and BBC2 (UK).