Human life in Pompeii came to an abrupt halt nearly 2,000 years ago, when Mount Vesuvius spilled tons of ash and rock onto the ancient Roman city, preserving it in time. Over the centuries, Pompeii became a powerful symbol of the transience of life and human impotence when nature unleashes its power.

Since excavations began in 1748, fragments of that ancient civilisation have continued to emerge, providing clues to archaeologists and historians on how residents may have lived, dressed and eaten. About 80 thermopolii have been found at Pompeii, where residents could choose their meals from containers set into street-front counters.

The front of the shop was covered in frescoes, including one showing a snack shop's offerings.

The front of the shop was covered in frescoes, including one showing a snack shop’s offerings. Credit:Parco Archeologico di Pompeii

The one excavated this month included a large earthenware vessel that had contained wine.

“It was full of lapilli [rock fragments], and removing them released a very intense aroma of wine,” said Teresa Virtuoso, the archaeologist overseeing the team excavating the site. “It was so strong we could smell it through our masks.”

The contents of two other jars remain to be analysed, but Chiara Corbino, the archaeozoologist involved in the dig, said it appeared that they contained two kinds of dishes: a pork and fish combination found “in other contexts at Pompeii,” and a concoction involving snails, fish and sheep, perhaps a soup or stew. Further analysis is expected to determine whether vegetables were part of the ancient recipe.

The painting of the dog was scrawled with vulgar graffiti.

The painting of the dog was scrawled with vulgar graffiti. Credit:Parco Archeologico di Pompeii

The remains of at least two people were also found inside the shop. Archaeologists believe that tomb robbers moved the bones in the 17th century, because the skeletons found this month were not intact.

A documentary about the discoveries of the past two years will be available to international audiences online.

Valeria Amoretti, the anthropologist who heads Pompeii’s applied research laboratory, described the thermopolium as “a complex environment” that provides information that “had never been detected at Pompeii.”

It also exemplifies the high quality of decoration in the ancient city. Painted panels on the front of a Z-shaped counter included a central image of a Nereid, the mythological sea nymph, riding a sea horse, along with frescoes of a rooster, ducks being prepared for cooking and a chained dog. There was also a painted image of a thermopolium, complete with amphora and jars.

The frame of the collared dog includes an unusual piece of graffiti: “nicia cinaede cacator”, a crude homophobic slur, possibly about an owner or worker at the shop.

The New York Times

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