How Did People in Ancient Pompeii End Up Eating Giraffes?

The tech infrastructure of the city hints at the varied diets of the people of the Roman empire. 

A team, with the help of a (modern) tablet, examines an ancient Pompeiian drain for food remnants. (University of Cincinnati)

We tend to think of Pompeii mostly in terms of its ending. Before the city was smothered, though, Pompeii was a bustling seaside metropolis—an intersection, essentially, of an empire. Today, its remains still host the ancient objects that serve as evidence of its place in the world.

Since 2005, in a long-ignored area inside the Porta Stabia, one of Pompeii's busiest gates, a team of archaeologists has been examining evidence of the city as it once was—evidence that may date as far back as the 6th century BC. The team, from the University of Cincinnati, is examining a plot that encompasses 20 different shop fronts from the old city. Most of those establishments, it seems, served food and drink. Which means that their remains offer—via trash collections, kitchens with food remnants, drains, cesspits, and latrines—a record of the kind of meals that ancient residents of the city would have enjoyed.

So what did the Pompeiians eat? The stuff you'd probably expect ... but also some stuff you probably wouldn't. On the one hand, the team discovered evidence of food that would have been both inexpensive and widely available to ancient Romans—stuff like grains, fruits, nuts, olives, lentils, fish, and (chicken) eggs. They also found some evidence of butchered meat.

In other words, the ancient Pompeiians ate in similar ways to modern-day Italians ... and to non-Italians who are trying to do the whole Mediterranean Diet thing. But the average Pompeiian, it seems, rounded out the staples with a more exotic diet. The Cincinnati team found, in the remnants even of businesses that would have served the lower classes, evidence of salted fish that would have come from Spain. Via a drain from a property in the center of the plot, they also discovered evidence of shellfish not native to Italy. They found mineralized remnants, as well, of sea urchin. And also! The butchered leg joint of a giraffe.

"That the bone represents the height of exotic food," Steven Ellis, an associate professor of classics who led the research, told Heritage Daily, "is underscored by the fact that this is thought to be the only giraffe bone ever recorded from an archaeological excavation in Roman Italy."

Objects recovered from the Porta Stabia (University of Cincinnati)

It's a mystery how the bone found its resting place in the middle of Pompeii. In the larger sense, though, it's not a mystery at all. As Ellis puts it"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."

Ellis and his co-authors will present their findings tomorrow at the joint annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America and American Philological Association in Chicago. Despite their residence in the relatively globalized world of 2014, however, they will likely not celebrate their presentation by dining on giraffe.