What is the reason for our fascination with artifacts, these pieces that were made and used by someone two millennia ago? Perhaps that someone is the point of connection. The people who made and used these objects have long since perished. Now only their material creations survive, reminders of their dead owners.
The archaeologist takes a step further in asking why were these artifacts made in the first place. Every artifact was made by someone and used by someone somehow. In unraveling that "somehow," archaeologists develop a fuller understanding of what ancient Pompeians were doing and what kind of people they were. Finds from the House of the Vestals have provided us with much information about the material culture and ordinary experiences of these ancient Pompeians, at work and at leisure. A cowbell (with its clapper still in place!), an iron shovel head, countless loom weights, and bone needles remind us of the very real farm work and housekeeping that needed to be done in and around the city. At the same time, strigils, ivory dice, and glass gaming pieces indicate the exercise and games Pompeians enjoyed. Alabaster and glass perfume bottles, rings plated in gold, and impressive brooches hint at the wealth of the Vestals' residents, while several keys indicate their desire to lock away these and other such opulent possessions.
Normally we rely on coins and pottery to provide absolute dating. This season alone, we have already excavated more than 200 coins from numerous deposits. The images and inscriptions on coins contain a great deal of historical information, and provide us with known dates of minting. A deposit cannot be earlier than the date of minting of its latest coin. Pottery provides another source of dating and much other information besides.
More Than Mere Dirt
The story of recovery does not end with artifacts in the trenches, sieves, and finds trays. Only larger materials are recovered on site through troweling and sieving, and these artifacts provide one kind of information about the material culture. Study of the actual soil--and the organic materials located within it--yields a treasury of information about Pompeian diet, animal husbandry, and ecology.
Our specialists have studied seeds, bones, and other, almost invisible traces, left by ancient Pompeians. We have retrieved these through two methods: flotation and laboratory examination. Samples of all stratified soil deposits are put through a flotation tank, which causes the separation of lighter residues from heavier. Once dried, both residues are carefully sorted with sieves and tweezers. However, samples from deposits particularly rich in organic materials, such as cesspits, pipes, and toilets, are taken for laboratory study at the University of Bradford.
Such analyses allow us to know what sorts of flora and fauna were present living or dead in VI,1. As with artifacts, however, knowing what we have is only the first step towards understanding why we have it and what it can tell us about the experiences and activities of the Pompeians who lived two millennia ago.
The more than 24,000 bone fragments that we have uncovered since 1995 have been carefully sorted and analyzed for four particular aspects: species, age at death, sex, and the reason for its death. In the case of domesticated animals, these four pieces of data allow us to make hypotheses about animal husbandry and farm economy: what types of animals were being raised and at what age they were slaughtered. Butchery marks, fragmentation, and burning offer us further information as to how the animal was brought to town, sold at market and prepared in the kitchen.
Analysis of plant remains complements our developing picture of the Pompeian within his natural environment. By studying the presence and concentration of different plant material we can determine whether certain plants were dietary, commercial, decorative, or structural. They may also indicate fuel sources, which lead to questions of the management and exploitation of the Pompeian hinterland. One student's impassioned plea for such studies appears in this week's journal entry.
The Pompeian Diet
Before Vesuvius buried the city alive, the landscape nourished Pompeii from its rich volcanic soil. Today the region still has lush vegetation, thriving orchards and farms. The panorama provides nostalgic glimpses into what villa production in antiquity may have resembled. In fact, many of the ecofacts recovered through our fieldwork suggest that little has changed in the types of plants and animals in the region. Various legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, and broad beans have made appearances in both our samples of ancient deposits and in our daily lunch bowls at Camping Spartacus. Seeds recovered through flotation prove that the ancient Pompeians consumed many fruits typical of the Mediterranean today, including grapes, figs, olives, and dates. Remains of vegetables are exceptionally scarce as they quickly biodegrade. We have, nevertheless, found traces of several important Mediterreanean herbs, including rosemary and oregano. We have also retrieved very exotic oriental spices, such as pepper and cumin. These spices could only have been acquired through trade and are truly a testament to the wealth and variety of taste of the residents of the House of the Vestals. Wheat, mostly spelt wheat, appears to be the most important cereal for bread. The recovery of these various plant materials is exceptional, and the small traces we have been able to collect allow us only a peek at that lush harvest the Pompeians once enjoyed in their local bars and kitchens and at their tables and reclining couches.
The other part of their menu is revealed by the animal bones. The frequency, types, and fusion of these bones tell us much about the meat eaten by the residents of the House of the Vestals and the visitors to the neighboring bar. More than half of the bones recovered from the Vestals are pig bones, about one-third are sheep, one-fifth are chicken, and the rest are mostly cattle. Similar ratios have turned up for the bar as well. We have also found minimal samples of bones of frogs, mice, rats, hedgehogs, and moles. These animals were more likely to have been unwanted visitors than last night's dinner. In fact, the cuts of meat that do arrive in the Vestals are quite extravagant. The majority of the recovered sheep bones had been taken from sheep ranging in age from six to 28 months old. Younger animals have more savory meat and yield more tender cuts. Dinner at the Vestals' was quite a delectable event. Next door at the bar, the same types of animals were being eaten, just older ones. In this case and others, information gleaned from analyzing bone fusion doesn't simply report the age of the animals eaten. It increases awareness of unsurprising social and economic stratification; a fast-food stop sells less quality meat, while a high-class home enjoys the finest cuts.
While not so common as pigs and sheep, poultry provided another staple food source. Chicken bones have turned up in both the House of the Vestals and its neighboring bar, and various types of eggshells have been retrieved. Careful study of tiny fragments of eggshell has indicated that chicken, goose, partridge and duck eggs were quite common. A surprising find last season was fragments of shell that most closely resemble peafowl eggshell. Peacocks and peahens frequently appear in wall frescoes, but were probably kept, as they are today, by only the wealthiest Pompeians.
Bones of fishes, mostly from the sea, are present in small numbers in almost every layer we have excavated. A few very early deposits can be reasonably interpreted as fishmongers' waste, but most of the remains look as though they are the annoying small bones, spines, and scales we leave on our plates and send back to the kitchen to be discarded. As with the mammal bones, fish bones help us evaluate social and economic distinctions. In the House of the Vestals, we have retrieved the bones and shell of expensive marine animals such as tuna and sea urchin, both of which were rare delicacies in antiquity.
Exciting discoveries these past few days have revealed a thin layer of tiny fish scales and bones in a waterproofed tank. In VI,1,2, sediments at the very bottom of a tank have preserved an articulated skeleton of a tiny fish. This particular deposit was fairly hard and required very careful troweling; the skeleton itself was nearly lost. The excitement of the discovery, however, is not simply the surprising and fortunate recovery itself. Its true value is the information it provides. This skeleton, combined with collections of other small fish remains within the tank's vicinity, suggests that this tank and others similar to it were used for the production of garum or liquamen, a very popular spicy fish sauce used to flavor both savory and sweet dishes.
After the Meal
Another potential source of information on diet comes from the toilets of VI,1. Laboratory analysis of traces of human excrement can reveal what people had eaten. It can also produce evidence for health and hygiene. Encrustations on a toilet in the inn (VI,1,4) have preserved the eggs of intestinal parasites. Furthermore, we can now show how important private toilets were to the people of VI,1. Each property had its own toilet and cesspit.
Be Our Guest: An invitation to dinner at the House of the Vestals
The following menu is based on food remains found during the excavation of the House of the Vestals. The recipes have been interpreted through those offered in Apicius' Art of Cooking. Tagomenas faciemus! (Buon appetito!)
Patina de Asparagis Frigida (Asparagus, chicken fillets, and wine mousse)
Ova Elixa in Colocasio (Soft boiled eggs with sauce of pepper, cumin, rue, and honey)
Lenticula ex Spondylis (Lentils with mussels and herbs)
Porros cum Olivis (Leeks with olives in a vinaigrette dressing)
Caseum Bubulum (Cows' milk cheese)
PRIMAE MENSAE (Main Course)
Pullum Numidicum (chicken Numidian style, with a sauce of dates, pine kernels, herbs, and spices)
Porcellum Vitellianum Farsilem (roast suckling pig, stuffed with an oregano, lovage, and sausage mix)
Aurata Assa (grilled gilthead sea bream, with a sauce of lovage, caraway, oregano, mint and honey)
SECUNDAE MENSAE (Dessert)
Gustum de Praecoquis (apricots stewed with honey, mint, and wine)
Tyropatinum (egg and honey custard)