Thursday, January 5, 2012

Messy Romans

Live Science reports,
The tombs of Pompeii, the Roman city buried by a volcanic eruption in A.D. 79, had a litter problem. Animal bones, charcoal, broken pottery and architectural material, such as bricks, were found piled inside and outside the tombs where the city's dead were laid to rest.

To explain the presence of so much garbage alongside the dead, archaeologists have theorized that 15 years before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, an earthquake left Pompeii in disrepair.

However, this theory is unlikely, according to an archaeologist who says the citizens of Pompeii may have just been messy, at least by modern, Western standards.

"We tend to assume things like that are universal, but attitudes toward sanitation are very culturally defined, and it looks like in Pompeii attitudes were very different than ours," said Allison Emmerson, a graduate student studying Roman archaeology in the classics department of the University of Cincinnati.

Archaeological evidence from the last 15 years indicates that the city likely did not fall into ruin after the earthquake in A.D. 62; rather than flee, citizens appear to have rebuilt, reconstructing public spaces and elite houses. When the eruption buried the city, new tombs were still being built and the city appeared prosperous, according to Emmerson.

"It just didn’t make sense that trash would mean the tombs weren't being used," she said.  
In fact, the tombs weren't unique; excavators have found the same sort of household garbage in the city streets, along the walls of the city, even on the floors of homes. When Emmerson excavated a room in a house that appears to have also served as a restaurant, she found a cistern for storing water between two garbage pits packed with broken pottery and food waste, such as animal bones, grape seeds and olive pits.

No evidence has been found for a system for handling garbage or for dedicated dumps.
"The closest thing that has been found is a giant heap of garbage outside the city walls," she said.
I had always assumed that the people who built baths and sewage systems were generally tidy people but it would appear that this was not the case.  It would be interesting to compare the messy tombs of Pompeii with later Christian tombs in the Roman empire.  I would bet that the belief in the final resurrection motivated Christians to better maintain their grave sites.

2 comments:

  1. I admit that parts of this story surprizes me as well. Not sure why the total lack of sanatation. Maybe the Camorra ran garbage disposal then like they do now: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camorra#Garbage_crisis

    I suspect you are right about the Christian tombs/catacombs being better cared for.

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  2. Naples has a garbage problem and is in the shadow of Vesuvius. Let's hope history does not repeat itself.

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