Giraffe was on the menu in Pompeii's standard restaurants, says a new research into a non-elite section of the ancient Roman city buried by Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 A.D.
The study, which will be presented on Jan. 4 at the Archaeological Institute of America and American Philological Association Joint Annual Meeting in Chicago, draws on a multi-year excavation in a forgotten area inside one of the busiest gates of Pompeii, the Porta Stabia.
Steven Ellis, a University of Cincinnati associate professor of classics, said his team has spent more than a decade researching the life of the middle and lower classes in Pompeii, including the foods they ate.
The excavated area covered 10 separate building plots, comprising homes and a total of 20 shop fronts, most of which served food and drink.
The researchers dug out drains as well as 10 latrines and cesspits, and analyzed residues such as excrement and food waste from kitchens.
It emerged that the poor ate rather well in Pompeii, living on a diet of inexpensive and widely available grains, fruits, nuts, olives, lentils, local fish and chicken eggs. But they also ate more expensive meat, shellfish, sea urchin and salted fish from Spain — not to mention delicacies such as giraffe meat.
"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," Ellis said in a statement.
Waste from neighboring drains turned up variety of foods which included exotic and imported spices, some from as far away as Indonesia, revealing a socioeconomic distinction between neighbors.
But it was the butchered leg joint of the giraffe that intrigued the archaeologists.
Representing the height of exotic food, it is also "the only giraffe bone ever recorded from an archaeological excavation in Roman Italy," Ellis said.
"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," he added.
Image: A street restaurant in Pompeii. Credit Rossella Lorenzi