2000s Archive

Under the Volcano

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The cruel irony of Pompeii is that the cataclysm, which may have killed as many as 1,500, also hermetically sealed the city for nearly 1,700 years, making it the best-preserved Roman town of antiquity. In recent decades, archaeologists have intensified their efforts to examine what might be called the House & Garden aspects of the place. Wilhelmina F. Jashemski published a pace-setting study of the gardens in which she filled empty root cavities with plaster, compared the casts with existing plants, and determined which bushes and flowers once adorned the town. The Earthwatch project, designed by a protégé, Dr. Betty Jo Mayeske, of the University of Maryland, studies food and wine.

This is where the volunteers come in. Seventy-five years ago, during the golden age of archaeology, oversize professors with colorful personalities would camp in the wilderness for months, dining at tables set with sterling and crystal, and delegating the work to local laborers. Such excesses disappeared with peer review, tighter budgets, and the end of imperialism. Perhaps the most important contribution of volunteer vacations is that they provide highly educated workers who pay their own way. I asked Mayeske, the expedition's leader, whether this Pompeii project would have been possible without Earthwatch. Her answer: "No."

The volunteers also contribute to the scholarship, she stressed. One morning, a handful of them were measuring one of the rooms that make up the warren of mostly scarred structures on the 160-acre site. The primary task of this summer's research was to document every facility used for eating and drinking: a thermopolium (shop that served hot food) here, a triclinium (dining room in a wealthy home) there. This group discovered something previously unknown: a large public room that seemed to be used for eating but that had no facility for preparing or purchasing food. Scholars and volunteers huddled to discuss. Previous research that listed the room as a hostel was unhelpful; there was no place for beds.

After several minutes, Jonathan Cross, a 47-year-old management consultant from London, lobbed a semifacetious notion. Perhaps the room was a food court. "There are three shops nearby," he noted. "Maybe people picked up the food and came here to eat."

Dr. Mayeske liked the idea, but her colleague Dr. Robert I. Curtis, of the University of Georgia, demurred. "You can't make a connection between the way people eat today and two thousand years ago."

"Without evidence, I agree with you," Dr. Mayeske said. "But the climate has stayed the same; the topography has stayed the same. There is possibility."

Moments later, as the conversation moved on, Cross was beaming. "For me, the principal reason to do this project is to spend not just two or three hours at this site, but two or three weeks. And to be part of a team that is contributing to its understanding. Here you aren't spectating on the world, you are participating."

So what has the team been learning? Late one afternoon, I sat in the dining room of our hostel alongside Eugenia Salza Prina Ricotti, Italy's leading expert on ancient food, who was serving as overseer. Her personality was uniquely suited to her role-patrician, alluring, dismissive, all-knowing. And wickedly funny. At one point I asked her what she would do if I could take her out of the present and place her back in August of A.D. 79. She looked at me with withering disdain. "I would run."

Archaeologists know quite a lot about Roman eating habits, she explained. Accepting that class differences were enormous—Pompeii allegedly had two slaves for every three people—some conclusions seem possible. Wealthy people ate roasted meats (lamb, pork, venison, boar), sauces (the base was a fish sauce called garum—an early predecessor of Worcestershire sauce), and vegetables. Bread was baked in circular loaves with high-gluten wheat that made it chewier and more durable for travel. They ate cheese but no butter. Wine was drunk morning, noon, and night, usually diluted with water. "We can find literary references to people being accused of drinking their wine unmixed," she said, "which basically meant you were a sot."

Romans ate two small meals a day, followed by the evening supper, which often began in the afternoon. This meal was held in the triclinium, which was furnished with couches where guests reclined. "Only poor people, or slaves, ate sitting up in chairs." It was these meals that often became the sybaritic feasts of legend, complete with eggs, fish, partridges, parrots, songbirds in asparagus sauce, sow's womb stuffed with sausage, followed by honeycakes, nuts, and peppered dried fruit. Guests openly belched, girls danced provocatively, and most hoarded food in their napkins so they could eat it the next day. Periodic sumptuary laws were passed to control the profligacy.

"So who gave the biggest banquets?" I asked.

"Augustus ate practically nothing. Neither did Cleopatra. Mark Antony liked to eat. He ate a lot of boars. You can see on his coins that when he was young he was handsome; but the older he got, the fatter he became."

"So if you could go to one banquet, thrown by one emperor, which one?"

"At my age," she said, "I wouldn't go."

"But what about me?"

"At your age," she said. "I'd go to any one I could."

Before going to Pompeii, I had heard about another of the volcano's legacies—a mineral-rich soil that still covers the ground and yields potent, flavorful vegetables. I mentioned this to the owner of a local restaurant, who invited me shopping.

Salvatore Gramaglia is an Italian restaurateur out of Fellini—colorful, in his early sixties, with warm, gesticulative pidgin English he picked up in the Caribbean. We began our day at a farm, where we found basil leaves the size of my hand and red peppers as bright as lipstick. This part of Italy has lemons that look like yellow sponges, with thick rinds (to keep out bugs) and sweet nectar. The water buffalo responsible for mozzarella di bufala graze nearby. "The best tomatoes to eat with mozzarella are not very red," he said. "Save the red ones for cooking."

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