Cosmic Science

Ancient fast-food joint served up spicy language

A just-unveiled excavation at Italy’s Pompeii archaeological site shows that ancient Roman restaurants had a lot in common with modern-day fast-food eateries — including rude graffiti.

But at Pompeii’s snack bar, naughty comments weren’t just scratched on restroom walls. They were right out in the open, inscribed onto the counter where hot food and drinks were served.

The nearly 2,000-year-old fast-food joint, which was known back then as a thermopolium, got rave reviews this weekend when the Archaeological Park of Pompeii opened it up for pictures. The site was first excavated in 2019, but this year, archaeologists dug down all the way to the floor, unearthing marvelous frescoes in the process.

They also found traces of the tasty wares that were once stored inside the restaurant’s vessels and doled out to customers — as well as the remains of someone who died suddenly when Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in the year 79 covered Pompeii with hot ash and debris.

Archaeologists said the victim was at least 50 years old, and may have been lying on a bed when the ash rained down — based on the fact that nails and wood residues were found beneath the body. Another collection of human bones was found stuffed inside a jar, perhaps left there centuries ago by rogue excavators looking for valuables.

A complete dog skeleton was found in the corner between the eatery’s two doors. Based on the skeleton’s size, the fully mature pooch stood no higher than 10 inches at the shoulder — which suggests it was deliberately bred to be a lapdog.

“As well as being another insight into daily life at Pompeii, the possibilities for study of this thermopolium are exceptional, because for the first time an area of this type has been excavated in its entirety, and it has been possible to carry out all the analyses that today’s technology permits,” Massimo Osanna, the site’s interim director general, said in a Dec. 26 news release.

The eatery was designed so that drinks and prepared food could be dispensed from ceramic jars that were embedded in a masonry counter. Inside one jar, archaeologists found a fragment of duck bone. There were also remains from goats, pigs, fish and snails — hinting at the variety of dishes and stews available at the restaurant.

One wine container held bits of ground fava beans, which the Romans used to flavor wine and bleach it to a lighter color.

The frescoes on the counter depict a colorful rooster, a Nereid sea nymph riding a seahorse over the waters, two mallard ducks prepared for cooking, and a muscular dog on a leash. The canine’s look is consistent with that of the “Cave Canem” (“Beware of Dog”) warning sign seen elsewhere in Pompeii’s ruins.

Not everyone was intimidated, however. There’s a rude phrase scrawled on the painted frame around the dog’s picture — and some of the news reports about the Pompeii fast-food joint force you to guess at what it says.

The Associated Press, for example, describes the comment only as “vulgar graffiti.”  The New York Times calls it “an unprintable slur — or joke — against one of the employees or the owner of the shop.”

If you’re offended by vulgar graffiti, skip over to the next paragraph. But if you’re curious, the phrase is “Nicia Cinaede Cacator,” which the archaeologists say translates to “Nicias, Shameless Shitter.” There’s also an even more provocative sexual connotation to the phrase.

Archaeologists presume that Nicias was a Greek freedman who was associated with the diner, and whose legacy survived down the centuries — as the butt of a rude joke.

The fast-food joint is expected to be open to visitors by the middle of next year, assuming the pandemic has eased by then. That’s when folks will be able to see for themselves that the ancient Romans weren’t always the haughty aristocrats some suppose them to have been.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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