Pompeii Residents May Have Been Early Recyclers

Located near the Italian city of Naples, the preserved ruins of Pompeii illuminate what life was like in ancient Rome nearly two millennia ago. Viacheslav Lopatin/Shutterstock

Madison Dapcevich 28 Apr 2020, 22:25

Throughout the ages, humans have been known to create garbage and early Romans living in the ancient city of Pompeii were no different. Now, new research suggests the advanced society may have also found ways to recycle their refuse.

The ancient Romans were among the first known civilizations to employ public toilets and underground sewage systems and built many of their structures from cement and concrete, according to History. An excavation at Pompeii led by Dr Allison Emmerson, a professor at Tulane University and an expert in Roman archaeology working in collaboration with Pompeii Archaeological Research Project: Porta Stabia, now suggests that Roman cities may have implemented waste management systems into their democratic society. The findings are published in Emmerson's forthcoming book, "Life and Death in the Roman Suburbs," to be released next month. 

“Regardless of any legal interventions, garbage was an unavoidable part of Pompeian life. It covered streets, clogged drains, piled in gardens, and filled shallow pits inside inhabited rooms,” wrote Emmerson in the paper's abstract. “Outside the city, it formed large mounds alongside the fortification walls. These suburban garbage mounds, however, do not seem to have functioned like modern landfills, corralling waste in areas far removed from normal life.”

According to Emmerson, who focuses on ancient urbanism, research of Roman garbage and recycling habits typically falls into two camps: the first finding that the cities were riddled with refuse and relatively unsanitary, while others focused on the ancient democracy's legal mechanisms that required the removal of trash from the city to the suburbs. Recent excavations of the suburbs of Pompeii found mounds of garbage that accumulated in busy areas, which may have served as a “staging area for future recycling and reuse of the items.”

Previous research found that cemeteries in ancient Pompeii were “mixed-use developments,” serving both as a way to bury the dead and as a location to toss out trash. Excavations that began in 2009 found that burial spaces were located in well-used roads that saw high volumes of traffic and exhibited a “casual” treatment of waste.

"I excavated a room in a house where the cistern (for storing drinking water and water for washing) was placed between two waste pits. Both waste pits were found completely packed with trash in the form of broken household pottery, animal bones, and other food waste, like grape seeds and olive pits,” said Emmerson.

Pompeii residents experienced a period of rejuvenation following a powerful earthquake in 62 CE, which led to the region becoming one of the wealthiest in the Roman Empire before its ultimate demise in 79 CE following a volcanic eruption that left the city blanketed in ash and toxic gases. Understanding what people leave behind can tell researchers a lot about how they lived their lives.

“Studying waste, therefore, reflects not only on Pompeii’s sanitation, but also illuminates essential patterns of its economic and social life,” said Emmerson. 

A room at Pompeii excavated by UC's Allison Emmerson. Note that the cistern (for storing drinking water and water for washing) was placed between two waste pits. Allison Emmerson/University of Cincinnati

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