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Dine like the Romans? Then try some giraffe legs and sea urchins…

We don’t think it will be the new Atkins.

A giraffe and a flamingo. Yes, this picture exists.
A giraffe and a flamingo. Yes, this picture exists.
Image: Giraffe and a Flamingo via Shutterstock

ROMANS DINED ON an intriguing list of food stuffs, including giraffe legs, pink flamingos, sea urchins and exotic Indonesian spices, a new study has claimed.

Teams of archaeologists from the University of Cincinnati have spent more than 10 years at excavations in Pompeii, near Naples in southern Italy, finding deposits which date as far back as the fourth century.

The researchers believe their discoveries in the famed city, which was buried under a volcano in 79AD, “wipe out the historic perceptions of how the Romans dined”.

They now say that the lower classes did not scrounge for soup and gruel while those with wealth ate lavishly and luxuriously. However, lines can still be drawn between socioeconomic classes by examining their diets.

Lead researcher Steven Ellis presented his findings at the joint annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) and American Philological Association (APA) in Chicago earlier this month.

“The traditional vision of some mass of hapless lemmings – scrounging for whatever they can pinch from the side of a street, or huddled around a bowl of gruel – needs to be replaced by a higher fare and standard of living, at least for the urbanites in Pompeii,” he said.

Ellis and his team have worked on the excavation of two city blocks within a non-elite district of the city, producing a complete archaeological analysis of homes, shops and businesses at a once-forgotten area inside one of the busiest gates of Pompeii, the Porta Stabia.

The area covers 10 separate building plots and a total of 20 shop fronts, most of which served food and drink. The waste that was examined included collections from drains as well as 10 latrines and cesspits, which yielded mineralised and charred food waste coming from kitchens and excrement. The discoveries in the drains was an abundance of the remains of fully-processed foods, especially grains.

“The material from the drains revealed a range and quantity of materials to suggest a rather clear socio-economic distinction between the activities and consumption habits of each property, which were otherwise indistinguishable hospitality businesses,” says Ellis.

Findings revealed foods that would have been inexpensive and widely available, such as grains, fruits, nuts, olives, lentils, local fish and chicken eggs, as well as minimal cuts of more expensive meat and salted fish from Spain. Waste from neighbouring drains would also turn up less of a variety of foods, revealing a socio-economic distinction between neighbors.

And further down the street, there were even more upmarket items to be discovered.

A drain from a central property revealed a richer variety of foods as well as imports from outside Italy, such as shellfish, sea urchin and even delicacies including the butchered leg joint of a giraffe.

“That the bone represents the height of exotic food is underscored by the fact that this is thought to be the only giraffe bone ever recorded from an archaeological excavation in Roman Italy,” continued Ellis.

“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.”

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