In the sewer

I have started to think about what a reader might like to known about the world in which Lucius lived, material which one can’t necessarily shoe-horn into a novel, and on asking around, the most popular answers were to do with food and waste disposal.

Fortunately, there is a magnificent sewer being excavated in Herculaneum on the Bay of Naples which manages to combine the two topics. Running under a row of shops and flats, the sewer yielded a mass of human waste and rubbish all of which is being analysed. While some things were thrown away because they were broken, such as items of pottery, others seem to have been lost down there: nobody would have deliberately thrown away a beautiful gold ring, would they?

But possibly the most fascinating work is being done on the waste material which was most often put down the latrines. Human waste, hardened by the impact of time and the effects of the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, is being gently taken apart in search of seeds and bones and shells and scales – anything which will help us to identify what those people ate. And the surprise for everyone was the variety. This sewer does not run under a particularly rich house, but as far as we can tell a pretty ordinary block of shops and flats. And instead of existing on a diet of bread and olive oil, the people of Herculaneum had a rich and varied diet, it would appear. And it’s a pretty healthy one too: lots of small fish and shellfish, fruits, nuts and vegetables, olives of course, spices and eggs. A classic Mediterranean diet, in other words.

The BBC have a very good documentary on Herculaneum, Life and Death in Herculaneum, hosted by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill who has been at the heart of excavation in the Bay of Naples area for years and knows what he is talking about. The British Museum also have a documentary from their Pompeii exhibition a few years ago in which they interview Professor Wallace-Hadrill about the contents of the Herculaneum sewer. Check about 47 minutes in –

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