Almost everyone enjoys eating out, whether it is at a fine dining restaurant or the local fast-food chain. A recent archeological discovery, however, shows that this practice dates back to ancient times.
In Italy, an excavation revealed a fast-food eatery in Pompeii, providing insights into what dishes were popular for ancient Romans who enjoyed going out for a meal.
This is actually not the first fast-food stall discovered in Pompeii. According to Massimo Osanna, Pompeii Archaeological Park’s longtime chief, 80 similar fast-food areas have been found in Pompeii. However, this is the first time that a thermopolium, or a hot-food-drink eatery, was completely unearthed.
A section of the counter of the fast-food stall was actually dug up in 2019, as part of efforts to support Pompeii’s crumbling ruins. Archaeologists continued to dig around the area and eventually uncovered a multi-sided-counter, which had typical wide holes at the top.
These holes in the countertop held deep containers of hot food, similar to soup containers commonly found in modern day salad bars.
Equipment and utensils common to ancient fast-food operations were also found at the site. These include a bronze ladle, nine amphorae, which were popular food containers in Roman times, a few flasks, and a ceramic oil container.
The fast-food counter had interesting paintings, including the figure of an underwater nymph on a horse. There are images of two upside-down mallards and a rooster, both of which probably advertised the fast-food stand’s menu.
The rooster’s plumage is a painted a vivid red, a typical ancient color known as Pompeiian red, which brightened the eatery and most likely helped attract customers.
A dog on a leash was depicted on another fresco, perhaps a reminder to owners to leash their pets. The painting’s frame included vulgar graffiti.
Valeria Amoretti, a Pompeii staff anthropologist, said of the exciting discovery: “Initial analyses confirm how the painted images represent, at least in part, the foods and beverages effectively sold inside.”
While plant and animal specialists continue to analyze the remains of the site, Amoretti noted that one of the containers had duck bone fragments, as well as the remains of goats, pigs, fish, and snails.
Traces of ground fava beans were collected at the bottom of a wine container. In ancient times, Amoretti said that fava beans were added to wine for flavor and to lighten its color.
Recalling the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that caused Pompeii’s destruction in 79 A.D., Osanna said, “We know what they were eating that day.” He noted that these street fast-food places were not frequented by the Roman elite, so the food remains showed “what’s popular with the common folk.”
The excavation also highlights a lesson that most successful entrepreneurs already know – a crucial element of a fruitful business is location, location, location. Osanna noted that the fast-food eatery was found in a good spot – it was located beside a small square with a fountain, and another thermopolium was located in the vicinity.
Pompeii was once a thriving and sophisticated Roman City located in Italy’s Campania region, near the coast of Naples. The catastrophic volcanic eruption buried the city under meters of ash and pumice. The layers of ash actually preserved parts of the city, providing a unique snapshot of Roman life.
Other artifacts were excavated in addition to the fast-food eatery, including the complete skeleton of a dog. Amoretti said that the dog wasn’t a “large, muscular dog like that painted on the counter but of an extremely small example” of an adult dog.
Intrigued excavators said that the dog’s height at shoulder level was 20–25 centimeters (8–10 inches). Amoretti said that such small dogs dug up from ancient periods was quite rare, and may be due to ancient practices of selective breeding.
The discovery of the fast-food stand also yielded human remains. Pompeii experts stated that the bones were likely disturbed by secret excavations by thieves looking for valuables in the 17th century.
Some of the bones belonged to a man, who might have been lying down on a bed or a cot when Vesuvius erupted, since nails and pieces of wood were retrieved under his body. Other human remains were found inside the vessels of the fast-food counter. The bones were most likely placed there by the same clandestine excavators centuries ago.
Destroyed in 79 A.D., and first rediscovered in the 1500s, new excavations continue to yield fascinating insights into the lives of ancient Romans. These and other archaeological discoveries in Italy are a fascinating window to the past.
The fast-food eatery itself presents an interesting parallel to modern times. Frozen in time, much of Pompeii remains unexcavated, and perhaps soon archaeologists will find other intriguing facets of the ancient doomed city.