Herculaneum was covered by Mount Vesuviuss eruption in 79 C.E., but unlike Pompeii, many human remains there were well preserved.
By Andrew CurryAug. 25, 2021 , 2:00 PM
Almost 2000 years ago, a volcanic eruption buried the seaside Roman town of Herculaneum in the same rush of hot ash and gas that decimated Pompeii. The catastrophe didnt just preserve buildings and bonesit saved clues to the Roman diet. A new analysis of the bones of 17 victims reveals what these ancient villagers were eating, and in what proportions. Residents scarfed a lot of seafood and olive oil, confirming historians estimates that average Romans consumed 20 liters (more than 5 gallons) of the oil each year.
Previous studies have only given broad outlines, not the nitty-gritty details, of the ancient Roman diet, says Erica Rowan, an archaeobotanist at the Royal Holloway University of London who was not involved with the new work. Here they do a good job of filling in those details.
In 79 C.E., in a desperate attempt to escape the impact of the Mount Vesuvius eruption, the people of Herculaneum huddled in boathouses along the towns waterfront, situated on the west coast of central Italy. But a sudden blast of 250C ash and gas killed them instantly, cooking their flesh while preserving their bones almost perfectly.
In previous work, scientists analyzed the collagen in those bones to conclude that men at Herculaneum had a more diverse diet than women. In the new study, researchers isolated specific amino acidsthe building blocks of proteinsfrom the collagen, and determined the ratios of varieties, or isotopes, of nitrogen and carbon atoms. Those isotopes can be traced to specific foods.
Thanks to the remains of plants and animals found at the site, archaeologists know the people of Herculaneum ate grains such as wheat and millet. They also consumed lentils, beans, cherries, peaches, and olives, plus 70 kinds of fish and shellfish from the Bay of Naples. But the proportions remained a mystery.
Using the new method, We can tell where their calories were coming from, says study co-author Oliver Craig, an archaeologist at the University of York. We were able to see foodstuffs were usually not able to see because theyre not proteins.
The analysis held some shocks: People at Herculaneum ate a lot of seafood, especially compared with humans in the Mediterranean region today. Approximately one-quarter of their protein was netted from the nearby sea, nearly triple the amount in the modern Mediterranean diet, the team reports today in Science Advances. We havent been able to see that before in regular isotopic analysis, Rowan says.
Olive oil was also a big hit. It made up at least 12% of calories consumed at Herculaneum, and perhaps much more. The find supports historical sources indicating the average Roman consumed 20 liters of oil each year, and that the oil was one of the most significant fat sources in the Roman diet. Olives were grown widely all across the Roman Empire, providing ample supplies. Oil wasnt a condiment, it was a proper ingredient, says co-author Silvia Soncin, an archaeologist at Sapienza University of Rome. They got a lot of energy out of it.
The women of Herculaneum also ate fewer grains and cereals than did the men. Herculaneums men, meanwhile, seemed to down more fish and shellfish. Soncin and Craig suggest mens varied diets might be a sign that they spent more time outside of the house.
The scientists acknowledge that the Herculaneum diet may not be representative of ancient Rome as a whole. Its possible the people of the townsituated on the rich Bay of Naples, surrounded by fertile volcanic soil, and near a major port importing goods from across the Mediterraneanhad an especially diverse diet.
Still, Rowan says, the approach could shed light on other ancient diets across the globe. If they could use the same methods at different sites, it would be really interesting.