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Snail, Fish and Sheep Soup, Anyone? Savory New Finds at Pompeii

ROME — Wine turned white with crushed fava beans. A soupy concoction of snails, sheep and fish.

If these don’t sound particularly appetizing today, they appear to have been all the rage in ancient Pompeii, as evidenced by ancient leftovers found during excavations this month at the archaeological site of the former Roman city. They were found in a thermopolium — or snack bar — serving street food popular in 79 A.D.

Two years after it was first partly unearthed, archaeologists began to excavate the interior of the shop this October. Last week, they found food and drink residue that is expected to provide fresh clues about the ancient population’s culinary tastes.

The work offers “another insight into daily life at Pompeii” and represents the “first time an area of this type has been excavated in its entirety” and analyzed with modern technology, Massimo Osanna, the departing director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, said in a statement on Saturday.

Human life in Pompeii came to an abrupt halt nearly 2,000 years ago, when Mount Vesuvius spilled tons of lapilli, ash and rock onto the ancient Roman city, preserving it in time. Over the centuries, Pompeii became a powerful symbol of the transience of life and human impotence when nature unleashes its power.

Since excavations began in 1748, fragments of that ancient civilization have continued to emerge, providing clues to archaeologists and historians on how residents may have lived, dressed and eaten. About 80 thermopolii have been found at Pompeii, where residents could choose their edibles from containers set into street-front counters.

The one excavated this month included a large dolium, or earthenware vessel, that had contained wine.

“It was full of lapilli, and removing them released a very intense aroma of wine,” said Teresa Virtuoso, the archaeologist overseeing the team excavating the site. “It was so strong we could smell it through our masks.”

Although the archaeological park has been closed for part of this year because of the pandemic, excavations have continued, with archaeologists taking precautions.

In another dolium, they found the skeletal remains of a mouse, suggesting that the vessel might have contained grains of some kind, and that the mouse — like the residents of ancient Pompeii — fell victim to the eruption, Ms. Virtuoso said.

The contents of two other jars remain to be analyzed, but Chiara Corbino, the archaeozoologist involved in the dig, said it appeared that they contained two kinds of dishes: a pork and fish combination found “in other contexts at Pompeii,” and a concoction involving snails, fish and sheep, perhaps a soup or stew. Further analysis is expected to determine whether vegetables were part of the ancient recipe.

“We will analyze the contents to determine the ingredients and better understand what kind of dish it was,” she said. For now, she thinks the thermopolium probably served a stew or soup that included “all these animals together.”

The remains of at least two people were also found inside the shop. Archaeologists believe that tomb robbers moved the bones in the 17th century, because the skeletons found this month were not intact.

Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said on Saturday that the excavations at Pompeii continued to deliver “extraordinary discoveries.”

“Today, Pompeii is indicated in the world as an example of protection and management,” he said in a statement. Last month, Italian officials presented another new find: the remains of two of the original city dwellers.

Italy’s national broadcaster has followed the excavations at Pompeii over the past three years for a documentary that will be shown nationally on Sunday and will be available to international audiences online.

Valeria Amoretti, the anthropologist who heads Pompeii’s applied research laboratory, described the thermopolium as “a complex environment” that provides information that “had never been detected at Pompeii.”

It also exemplifies the high quality of decoration in the ancient city. Painted panels on the front of a Z-shaped counter included a central image of a Nereid, the mythological sea nymph, riding a sea horse, along with frescoes of a rooster, ducks being prepared for cooking and a chained dog. There was also a painted image of a thermopolium, complete with amphora and jars.

The frame of the collared dog includes an unusual piece of graffiti: an unprintable slur — or joke — against one of the employees or the owner of the shop.

Mr. Osanna, the site’s director, said in an interview on Saturday that work on the thermopolium was expected to finish by March. He hoped to make the site available to visitors by Easter, he said, coronavirus permitting.

At the same time, Mr. Osanna said, visitors will also be able to see the restoration site of the “House of the Silver Wedding,” which he described as “one of the site’s most beautiful houses.”

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