Science Interviews

Interview

Mon, 16th Aug 2010

Petrified poo gives clues to Pompeii people's lifestyle

Andrew Fairbairn, University of Queensland

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show Roman food: before and after

Diana -   We’re looking at the fundus, the base and bottom of archaeology with some archaeological poo smothered in volcanic ash in 79 AD, the sitePompeii bakery of Pompeii isn't just known for the incredible preservation of its residents and buildings.  Also preserved at the site are the ephemera of daily life including waste, but what sort of information can we glean from Roman poo?  Andy Fairbairn explains.

Andy - Well, we’re very interested in the long term – I guess economic - development of Pompeii and especially the life around the port of Stabia, the Stabian gate basically through the several hundred years of Pompeii’s existence.  The project that I'm part of, it’s run out of the University of Cincinnati in the US and it’s a multidisciplinary project like most archaeologic projects are known these days and it’s really trying to disentangle just the long term economic change at Pompeii and you know, how did the site, how did the city, how did the lives of the people their change over time as the Roman empire actually formed and then had various economic reforms.

Diana -   But how can Roman fossilised poo or copulate helped?

Andy -   Well the material that I've been looking at, it’s really the leftovers from sewage and rubbish I suppose.  It’s a mixture of hard bits that go through the digestive tract I suppose, and also, the soft bits and I'm very interested in plant material actually.  I'm interested in the seeds and fruits and bits of leaf matter that people eat in their lives.  Basically what happens when in soft pits and in wet areas in general in archaeological sites if there are very low oxygen levels and high water content, you can get plant material and soft tissues and all manner of things preserved.  Yet, even when they normally decay very rapidly, if they were left lying around on the surface or if it was a very dry kind of environment.  And what's happened in Pompeii in the context I'm actually looking at is that the sort of sewage, the rubbish, and all that kind of thing has been dumped long enough to basically fossilise much like a dinosaur bones or other things do when they're left in the ground for long periods of time and the right kind of chemical conditions. 

Effectively, all the soft tissue has been replaced by minerals and those minerals come out of, all the rubbish and whatever that's actually reserved in these cesspits pits. They’re effective barrels, the guard robes, the holes dug in the ground and lined often with ampiron in there actually used as a lining which people have then emptied their waste into.  Now what this actually allows us to do is to investigate some of the things that were actually eaten by people in the past.  

In most archaeological sites in Pompeii is another great exception to this.  The remains that we find there are dominated by the tough stuff and the bits that are often preserved in the case of plant material when they're burnt basically.  And we often get lots of rubbish, it’s all mixed up – that's what we get to look at from archaeological sites.  So we can actually quite tell what people have really been eating you know, what they have actually been consuming in aparticular place, maybe a particular family or something like that. 

The fantastic thing about sewage and faecal matter is that we have a pretty good idea that the things in it were actually consumed.  So, this is the great value for this kind of thing at Pompeii.  Andrew Jones otherwise known as ‘Bone Jones’ at the University of York as called has investigated the bottom end of the market.  He loves this kind of stuff and my former Professor used to call this stuff ‘Pearls beyond price’ because of the rare glimpse it gives us.  Really, if you haven’t got kind of a direct effluent ,sewage, you went to look around for a very rare find like bodies and mummies and things like that to give you this kind of information.  So in an occupation site like Pompeii, it’s wonderful stuff really and it allows us to key right into what those particular people in those particular houses were actually consuming at times in the past.

Diana -   Okay, so from whom did these brown pearls come from?

Andy -   Well the particular samples we’ve been looking at so far certainly from the later phases of occupation in the Port of Stabia.  Really, they’re come in from houses, building that were associated with basically retail outlets if you like.  I guess aRoman equivalent of the burger or that kind of thing.  This is where the great masses ate really in the Roman urban world.  Now we’re not actually sampling those people who were out the front, eating the food that was being served up in these places, basically restaurant, cafes, that kind of thing, but really, fast food joints.  You go along, you pick up a bite to eat and you head off on your daily routine.  But we’re actually looking at the people who are behind that, the people who were  preparing and serving up that food and people who actually lived in the houses in that area.  So, we’re not talking about the top end of town here.  We’re talking about maybe some of the business owning classes and some of their tenants.  So really, I think we’re looking at the lower end of Roman social world.

Diana -   Well the question I've got to ask is, does it still smell?

Pompeian painting of Roman foodAndy -   Oh, no.  Absolutely not.  It just smells of delicious moist soil actually.  It’s very pleasant stuff to work with actually and I would say, quite attractive to look at.  I've seen a lot of archaeological material in the microscope and a lot of the seeds, fruits and all bits of plant material I look at usually look pretty narly and blackened, and they're not particularly aesthetically pleasant, but we get all manner of things preserved.  It was beautiful to look at actually, these sort of basically fossilised mineral casts of things that were found in the past.  I have to say that it’s not just the plant material which I'm kind of obsessed about, so I love looking at it, but we get all manner of things including fly Puparia, all manner of insect bits and pieces they need too because we’re not just getting the actual sewage, the effluent, we’re getting all the things that actually live on it too, and they can actually be quite – I guess to my eye anyway- quite beautiful to look at in fact and they're beautifully preserved.

Diana -   What's the strangest thing you found in there?

Andy -   There is a certain amount of rubbish in there, yeah, definitely.  But most of the rubbish seems to be actually derived from food preparation so you get things like, bits of fish heads and you get small bits of bone vertebra that have been chopped up.  You can see where they've been butchered and maybe then removed from the food during preparation or maybe the leftovers of somebody having a nibble of something.  I think the most unusual thing, the most interesting thing from my point of view are actually the insect remains to be honest.  They haven’t been analysed in any way yet. Dr Mark Robinson is going to be working on those.  He’s a world-renowned expert in identifying this kind of thing and I find them probably the most fascinating of the materials that we find because often, these things are quite – the insects are actually very specific to particular environments.  And so, what they can tell us, yeah, they can say this is a big smelly pile of old poo if you like, but they also can give us all manner of, potentially anyway, information about the actual – the surroundings in the rooms for example that these toilets were in. 

We know from sort of generalised historical records that the Romans had a very different view of hygiene to us.  They often had the toilets in the kitchen so you could throw out your kitchen scraps as well as food that had already been eaten if you like.  And so, we can use the insect fauna that we have potentially to tell us what those sort of conditions may have been like in the kitchen so I’ll find that most interesting.  But I have to say rather sadly, you don't get things like bits of gold jewellery or anything like that in there.  It’s all rather mundane in my end of town.

Diana -   Well, when there's muck, there’s pearls as they say.  Andy Fairbairn, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Queensland.  And you can find more interviews like that at thenakedscientists.com/archaeology.

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