Life and Death in Herculaneum

Fig seeds

At 9pm today BBC2 is broadcasting The Other Pompeii: Life and Death in Herculaneum, a documentary following The Herculaneum Conservation Project, which aims to find out what life was like in the small Roman town of Herculaneum, moments before it was destroyed by the famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. This project involves work both in the field and in the Museum by our Environmental Archaeology Unit, led by Mark Robinson.

The sewer in Herculaneum
The sewer in Herculaneum

One of the problems faced by the conservators at Herculaneum is that they need to remove rainwater from the site. To this end, a Roman sewer was to be excavated so that it could act as a conduit for new plastic drain pipes. The Museum’s Environmental Archaeology Unit was brought in to investigate the contents of this sewer for evidence of Roman diet. Biological remains from Herculaneum were transferred to the Museum for detailed analysis by Mark and Erica Rowan, a doctoral student in the Environmental Archaeology Unit.

The numerous fish bones, sea urchin fragments and so on suggested that the occupants of the town enjoyed a varied marine diet. There was also evidence of the plant component of their diet, including a major consumption of figs and the use of food flavourings such as coriander and even black pepper, which would have been imported from India. Remains of fly pupae suggest unhygienic conditions.

Sorting in the field at Herculaneum
Sorting in the field at Herculaneum

Look out for more on this research, including footage filmed in the Museum, in the BBC 2 documentary tonight. The programme is being broadcast to coincide with the opening of the Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum.

Mark Robinson, Head of the Environmental Archaeology Unit

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