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Ancient Romans Had a Complex Diet, Including Giraffe

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The neighborhood of Pompeii where archeologists found out about the diet of ancient Pompeiians is seen in this photo provided by the University of Cincinnati.

The neighborhood of Pompeii where archeologists found out about the diet of ancient Pompeiians is seen in this photo provided by the University of Cincinnati.

The middle and lower classes of the Roman city of Pompeii had a surprisingly rich and varied diet, including such exotic fare as giraffe, according to newly published research.

According to a University of Cincinnati press release, archeologists spent more than a decade looking at "two city blocks within a non-elite area of the city," which was buried in lava and volcanic ash after Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD.
"The area covers 10 separate building plots and a total of 20 shop fronts, most of which served food and drink," the university said. "The waste that was examined included collections from drains as well as 10 latrines and cesspits, which yielded mineralized and charred food waste coming from kitchens and excrement."
"Among the discoveries in the drains was an abundance of the remains of fully-processed foods, especially grains," Steve Ellis, a University of Cincinnati associate professor of classics who was part of the excavation team, said in the press release.
"Findings revealed foods that would have been inexpensive and widely available, such as grains, fruits, nuts, olives, lentils, local fish and chicken eggs, as well as minimal cuts of more expensive meat and salted fish from Spain," the press release said. "Waste from neighboring drains also turned up a less diverse variety of foods, revealing socioeconomic differences between neighbors."
"A drain from a central property revealed a richer variety of foods, as well as imports from outside Italy, such as shellfish, sea urchin and even delicacies like the butchered leg joint of a giraffe," the university said.
"That the bone represents the height of exotic food is underscored by the fact that this is thought to be the only giraffe bone ever recorded from an archaeological excavation in Roman Italy," Ellis said in the press release. "How part of the animal, butchered, came to be a kitchen scrap in a seemingly standard Pompeian restaurant not only speaks to long-distance trade in exotic and wild animals, but also something of the richness, variety and range of a non-elite diet."
"Deposits also included exotic and imported spices, some from as far away as Indonesia," the press release said.
"The ultimate aim of our research is to reveal the structural and social relationships over time between working-class Pompeian households, as well as to determine the role that sub-elites played in the shaping of the city, and to register their response to city-and Mediterranean-wide historical, political and economic developments. However, one of the larger datasets and themes of our research has been diet and the infrastructure of food consumption and food ways," Ellis said.
He added that as a result of the discoveries, "The traditional vision of some mass of hapless lemmings - scrounging for whatever they can pinch from the side of a street, or huddled around a bowl of gruel - needs to be replaced by a higher fare and standard of living, at least for the urbanites in Pompeii."
The university archeologists presented their discoveries on January 4 at the joint annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America and American Philological Association in Chicago.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story did not properly reflect attribution to a University of Cincinnati press release.

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