A thermopoly, a fast food outlet appears intact

Correspondent in Rome

Updated:27/12/2020 17:08h

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Pompeii once again surprises with an extraordinary discovery. An intact termopolio, a commercial establishment that sold ready-to-eat food, the equivalent to what are today the restaurants where fast food is served. The unusual thing is that, in addition to human remains and the skeleton of a dog, clay pots have appeared with the remains of the most delicious dishes, from kid to snails and even uA kind of “paella” with fish and meat together. The wine, “corrected” with beans and ready to serve. And a large counter in the shape of an «L» decorated with images so realistic that they almost appear in 3D: a pair of mallards, an amazing rooster, a large dog on a leash on which a joker had written a homophobic insult. Unfortunately, the human bones found are scattered in the tunnels made in the seventeenth century by people who clandestinely excavated in search of precious objects. Some of those human remains belong to an individual at least 50 years old, who was probably in bed at the time of the eruption. Other bones, yet to be investigated, belong to another individual. The director of the Pompeii Archaeological Park, Massimo Osanna, stressed that it is about a discovery that “gives us an incredible photograph of the day of the eruption of Vesuvius”, in the year 79 d. C.

At the time of the first excavation, amphoras were found placed in front of the counter. In this last phase of excavation, extraordinary still life frescoes emerged, with representations of animals, probably sacrificed and sold in the room. Fragments of bones, belonging to the animals themselves, were also found inside the containers on the counter that contained food intended for sale. This is the case of the two real ducks exposed upside down, ready to be prepared and eaten, a rooster and a dog on a leash, almost a warning in the manner of the famous “Cave Canem”. In the frame that encloses the painting of the dog you can read a mocking inscription in graffiti: «Nicia cineade cacator» (“Nicia – probably a freedman from Greece – Cacatore, reversed!”. Perhaps it was left by a joker who had wanted to make fun of the owner or someone who worked in the thermopoly, according to the note made public by the Pompeii management.

Counter decorated with pictures of animals
Counter decorated with images of animals – Luigi Spina

Thermopolies, in which hot food and drinks were served, preserved in large jars or containers embedded in the masonry counter, they were very common in the Roman world, where it was customary to consume food outside the home. In Pompeii alone there are about eighty. In addition, in the thermopoly various pantry and transport materials were found: nine amphoras, a bronze pot, two jars, a common ceramic table pot … The floor of the entire room is formed by a layer of waterproof coating formed by fragments of terracotta, in which fragments of polychrome marble have been inserted in some places.

In front of the thermopoly, in the square opposite, it had already emerged a cistern, to collect and conserve rainwater, a fountain and a tower to allow the distribution of water, located a short distance away another establishment already known for the fresco of gladiators in combat. The first decorations that emerged in the excavations of the thermopoly show the image of a Nereid or nymph on horseback in a marine environment.

Laboratory analysis

The director of the Pompeii Archaeological Park has valued the discovery as follows: «In addition to being another testimony of daily life in Pompeii, the analysis possibilities of this thermopoly are exceptional, since for the first time an environment of this type has been completely excavated and all the analyzes allowed by current technologies have been carried out. The materials found were, in fact, excavated and studied in all aspects by an interdisciplinary team made up of anthropologists, geologists and volcanologists. The materials will be analyzed further in the laboratory and in particular the remains found in the terracotta containers on the counter will give us exceptional data to understand what was sold and what the diet was.

The anthropologist Valeria Amoretti highlights that «the first analyzes confirm that the paintings on the counter represent, at least in part, the food and beverages that were actually sold within the thermopoly: Two mallards are depicted among the paintings on the counter and, in fact, a fragment of duck bone has been found. Inside one of the containers, together with pork, goats, fish and land snails, attesting to the great variety of products of animal origin used to make the dishes ».

One of the paintings shows a nymph on horseback in a marine environment
One of the paintings shows a nymph on horseback in a marine environment – Luigi Spina

On the other hand, the first analyzes have allowed to identify oak fragments, probably belonging to structural elements of the countertop. At the bottom of a jar, identified as a wine container, The presence of beans, intentionally ground, was identified to modify the taste and color of the wine.

«A complete dog skeleton was found – adds the anthropologist Amorett -. It is not big and muscular like the one painted on the counter, but a small adult specimen, 8 or 10 inches tall. There were also, inside the room – and in particular behind the counter where they were dragged by the first (clandestine) excavators – a good number of human bones belonging to an adult individual, at least 50 years old. Bones belonging to at least one other individual remain to be investigated..

Human remains and the skeleton of a dog have been found
Human remains and the skeleton of a dog have been found – Luigi Spina

These are only the first data provided by the excavation in progress, but they certainly won’t be the last. In fact, the findings collected and brought to the laboratory will be further investigated through targeted investigations, allowing for more and more refinement of the data. The new discovery It is located in Regio V, the sector where the latest excavations are being carried out, which have not stopped during or even during the confinement by the coronavirus. The thermopoly (thermopolium, in Latin) or commercial establishment was only partially excavated in 2019, to give it security, during the works of the Great Pompeii Project, financed with 105 million by the European Union. Taking into account the exceptional nature of the decorations and in order to restore the complete configuration of the room, located at the intersection of the Vicolo delle Nozze d’Argento and the Vicolo dei Balconi, it was decided to expand the project and complete the excavation entirely the environment.

The Minister of Cultural Goods and Tourism, Dario Franceschini, highlighted that the new discovery “It is a virtuous example for the recovery of the country”. “Today Pompeii – Franceschini said – is shown to the world as an example of protection and management, once again being one of the most visited places in Italy where research is carried out, excavations continue and extraordinary discoveries like this are made.”

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