A giraffe under Vesuvius

For some of the inhabitants of Pompeii, their last meal before the terrible eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD was decidedly exotic

The leg of giraffe, which this film is about, was surely the most surprising discovery of a group of archaeologists from the American University of Cincinnati, led by Steven Ellis. For almost 10 years, Ellis and his colleagues were looking at an area of the ancient city of Pompeii little studied by archaeologists up to now, the area of Porta Stabia. It was the area of the city we would now call a working-class district: modest dwellings, shops and warehouses, inns.

A short distance away were the theatres, temples and the forum which was the centre of the cultural life of Pompeii. Rather than focusing on the houses of the nobility, as is normal in archaeological work, Ellis was discovering precious details of the lifestyle of the middle or lower classes of the ancient Roman society. And even their food customs.

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At the beginning of January, Ellis presented to the American Archaeological Association the results of excavations in the drainage ditches running away from the taverns and dwellings along two areas of the Porta Stabia area. After almost two thousand years, archaeologists picked over the waste of the inhabitants of Pompeii, finding what remained of their last meals before the eruption which destroyed the city in 79 AD.

Naturally, there was inexpensive and common food such as cereal, fruit, nuts, olives, lentils and hen eggs. There were salted meats and fish from Spain. Then there was seafood, sea urchins and even leg of giraffe, the only one ever found at an archaeological site in ancient Rome. As Ellis explained to journalists after his presentation, “the fact that one part of that animal had arrived, already butchered, in the kitchen of what seemed to be an ordinary restaurant in Pompeii tells us not only that there was long-distance trade in exotic and wild animals, but also of the richness, variety and choice of people’s diets.”

Indeed, that richer Romans (or Pompeians) dined on all types of delicacies and exotic animals, such as flamingos, is not news. But archaeologists always believed that the popular classes enjoyed nothing more than soup and slop. Just as it is today, exotic food was served and enjoyed in all quarters.

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