The Pompeii ruins continue to reveal fascinating information from ancient history, and this time researchers found that Romans organized and recycled garbage. Researchers at Pompeii, the city buried under a thick carpet of volcanic ash when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, have found that huge mounds of refuse apparently dumped outside the city walls were in fact “staging grounds for cycles of use and reuse”.
Scientists initially believed large piles of plaster and ceramic found outside the city walls were the result of an earthquake that occurred years before Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79AD. But, as professor Allison Emmerson explains, “The piles outside the walls weren’t material that’s been dumped to get rid of it. They’re outside the walls being collected and sorted to be resold inside the walls.”
Professor Allison Emmerson, an American academic, is part of a large team that has been working extensively at Pompeii, the Roman city destroyed by the violent eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.
The team of researchers also “used soil samples to trace the movement of rubbish across the city” allowing them to understand where the garbage originated, and how it was moved around for reuse.
Scientific analysis has now traced some of the refuse from city sites to suburban deposits equivalent to modern landfills, and back to the city, where the material was incorporated into buildings, such as earth floors.
With fellow archaeologists Steven Ellis and Kevin Dicus, who worked on the University of Cincinnati’s excavations, Emmerson has studied how the ancient city was constructed.
She said: ‘We found that at least part of the city was built out of trash. These piles aren’t outside the walls, because it’s material that’s been dumped outside to get rid of it. They’re outside the walls very purposely, being collected and sorted to be resold inside the walls.’
Almost the entire external wall on the city’s northern side, among other sites, had garbage piled up, with some of the mounds several metres high. Although most of the mounds were cleared in the mid-20th century, long before garbage became a topic of scholarly interest, they are still being discovered today.
One of the key disciplines within this new study was the accurate identification and categorization of soil types, for example, garbage dumped in latrines or cesspits creates a rich, organic soil, and waste accumulated on streets over time, or in mounds outside the city, results in a much sandier soil, according to Emerson in a Guardian article.
“The difference in soil allows us to see whether the garbage had been generated in the place where it was found, or gathered from elsewhere to be reused and recycled.”
Some walls, for example, included reused materials such as pieces of tile and broken amphorae, and lumps of mortar and plaster. “Almost all such walls received a final layer of plaster, hiding the mess of materials within,” she said.
She added: ‘The idea has been that all this garbage is the result of that earthquake – rubble that was cleared out of the city and dumped outside of it.
‘As I was working at Pompeii, outside the urban area, I thought this was very strange because I see the city really extending outside the walls into the suburbs…. So it didn’t make sense to me that they were also being used as landfill.’
Emmerson said that, while there has been debate about garbage in the Roman world, the latest research gives unprecedented detail of how it was collected and recycling: ‘What I’ve done is trace its path.
She said that today’s processing of waste is based on removing it from our daily lives: ‘For the most part, we don’t care what happens to our trash, as long as it’s taken away from us.
‘What I’ve found in Pompeii is an entirely different priority, that waste be collected and sorted for recycling.
“The Pompeians lived much closer to their garbage than most of us would find acceptable, not because the city lacked infrastructure and they didn’t bother to manage trash but because their systems of urban management were organised around different principles.
“This point has relevance for the modern garbage crisis. The countries that most effectively manage their waste have applied a version of the ancient model, prioritizing commodification rather than simple removal.”
‘This point has relevance for the modern garbage crisis. The countries that most effectively manage their waste have applied a version of the ancient model, prioritising commodification, rather than simple removal.’
Pompeii was a city of elegant villas and handsome public buildings, open squares, artisan shops, taverns, brothels and bathhouses. It included an amphitheater that hosted gladiatorial games for audiences of up to 20,000.
When volcanic dust from Vesuvius “poured across the land” – as one witness wrote – enveloping the city in darkness, at least 2,000 people died. In 1748, a group of explorers discovered the almost perfectly preserved city under a hardened carpet of ash and pumice. Even a loaf of bread was found preserved by later archaeologists.
Pompeii is now a Unesco world heritage site and – in normal times – attracts 2.5 million visitors each year.