When the people of ancient Pompeii had a hankering for a quick and easy meal, they might opt to visit one of the city’s numerous thermopolia—the Roman equivalent of snack bars, where customers could choose from a selection of ready-made dishes, kept warm in jars that were set into a counter. Now, as Agence France-Presse (AFP) reports, discoveries at one such thermopolium are shedding new insight into the menus of Pompeii’s fast food joints.
The thermopolium in question is located in an area known as Regio V, and like the myriad other archaeological finds to emerge from Pompeii, it has been remarkably well preserved after a catastrophic volcanic eruption in 79 A.D. blanketed the city with ash and debris. The snack bar was partially excavated in 2019, leading to the discovery of a counter decorated with a fresco of a Nereid, or sea nymph, riding a seahorse, along with what appears to be a depiction of the restaurant itself.
This site represents one of 80 thermopolia discovered at Pompeii, but “the possibilities for study of [the Regio V] thermopolium are exceptional, because for the first time an area of this type has been excavated in its entirety,” says Massimo Osanna, interim director general of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii.
During the latest phase of the excavation, archaeologists unearthed “exquisite scenes of still life” showing animals—like mallard ducks and a rooster—that were probably butchered and sold at the snack bar, according to a statement by the Archaeological Park of Pompeii. A fragment of duck bone was indeed found at the site. Experts are still working to analyze other remains discovered inside dolia, or terracotta jars that were embedded into the counter and filled with food and drink. But Chiara Corbino, a archaeozoologist who participated in the dig, tells Elisabetta Povoledo of the New York Times that two jars appear to have stored a fish and pork dish, along with “a concoction involving snails, fish and sheep,” perhaps some sort of soup or stew.
Experts are certain that one dolium discovered at the site held an alcoholic beverage; it contained both a bottle for drawing liquid and the remnants of ground beans, which were used to bleach wine. Yet another vessel may have been used to store grains, as indicated by the skeletal remains of a mouse found inside.
Archaeologists also discovered the bones of a small dog in a corner of the thermopolium. A larger pooch is depicted in one of the counter’s frescoes, which happens to be inscribed with a rather rude slur.
“This was probably left by a prankster who sought to poke fun at the owner, or by someone who worked in the thermopolium,” according to the Archaeological Park of Pompeii.
The ancient city is well known for its bawdy graffiti, and thermopolia were likely not among its more refined establishments. As Smithsonian’s Jason Daley reported in 2019, ancient snack bars had a bad reputation as the haunts of criminals and heavy drinkers. The emperor Claudius once ordered them to be shut down.
Like other sites in Pompeii, the thermopolium preserves the final moments of lives cut short by one of history’s most devastating natural disasters. During the excavation, experts found human bones belonging to an individual at least 50 years old, who appears to have been in bed when calamity struck; nail and wood residues were discovered beneath the body.
“The counter seems to have been closed in a hurry and abandoned by its owners but it is possible that someone, perhaps the oldest man, stayed behind and perished during the first phase of the eruption,” Osanna told the Ansa news agency, according to the AFP. Bones belonging to a second individual were found inside a large dolium, possibly placed there by illegal excavators in the 17th century.
Work at the thermopolium is expected to conclude in March, Osanna tells the New York Times. Pompeii is currently closed to the public because of the coronavirus pandemic, but when it reopens, visitors will be able to explore this fascinating spot, where residents of a doomed city once grabbed their meals.