Remnants of an ancient Pompeii food court.

Hidden for some 2000 years, a recently unearthed food stand in Pompeii suggests that perhaps we’ve all been a little smug in thinking we’re the original takeout culture.

In 1748, centuries after the nearby volcano of Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the town in ash, archeologists began excavating Pompeii and have since uncovered some 80 thermopolia, which literally means “a place where something hot is sold.” These ancient precursors to restaurants existed throughout the ancient Roman world. However, what makes this most recently excavated ruin especially noteworthy and exquisite is the level of detail preserved over time compared to previously discovered ruins, thereby providing even more clues about how people used to eat on the go.

The exceptionally well-preserved excavation site, known as Regio V, offers “another insight into daily life at Pompeii,” said Massimo Osanna, the departing director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, in a statement released on December 26th. Vibrant and beautiful homages of nymphs and gladiators, roosters and ducks can all be found in the surviving frescoes that cover most of the flat surfaces, not exactly unlike the artistic creations witnessed on food trucks today. With the menu before them in painting, customers could easily choose what they wanted at a glance.

Remnants of an ancient Pompeii food court.

Food was served from terracotta jars, called dolia, that were situated in the circular holes built into the counters. Human remains were found at the site as well. (Though the bones are often assumed to be those of a thief, taking advantage of everyone fleeing to help himself, we like to pretend it’s a chef immortalized, fittingly, with an arm extended in a gesture of giving.)

Remnants of an ancient Pompeii food court.

Valeria Amoretti, a site anthropologist, said traces of 2000-year-old remnants of pork, goat, fish, snails, and beef had been found in the vessels as well as nearby duck bone fragments, presumably from ducks that were waiting to be butchered.

Most Pompeiians with below-average income rarely had a place to cook at home and relied on thermopolia to stay fed, though the food stalls were also popular with the toga-clad wealthy, who occasionally sent a servant to bring back paella-style sustenance. The majority of food stalls were designed for takeout or eating at the counter although a handful had a back room or eat-in area. There’s also evidence of wine, making the likely scene at these food stalls even more interesting. Stephanie Butler of writes that “despite, or perhaps because of their ubiquity, the thermopolia had a bad reputation. Criminals and heavy drinkers often hung out there.” As such, the emperor Claudius banned them for a period of time but later relented.

Thermopolia were most commonly found in densely populated parts of Pompeii and while there is no proof for assertions that perhaps there was drive-thru service for wagons or chariots, the site is still undergoing excavation, so additional food discoveries and insights remain possible. Until then, rest assured, the need for takeout is a more time-honored and shared tradition than perhaps you’d imagined.

For additional information, consult the Archaeological Park of Pompeii.

About Jenny Latreille

Growing up in Northern Ontario, Jenny was always curious about the food that wasn’t available in her small hometown. As the city expanded, so did her desire to taste everything and learn all she could about cultures around the world. 40-something years later, she’s amassed an enormous collection of spices and recipes for making many regional cuisines. This hunger for cultural knowledge also led to an education in literature and linguistics, with a Master’s Degree in Globalization and Culture. She lives in an indoor urban jungle with a pack of cats known as The Adorables.

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  1. How is that new and why the surprise? When we visited Pompeii about 12-13 years ago the guide showed us a similar site at a street corner, telling us it was the time’s fast food place.

    1. Hello, Anna. According to Pompeii Archaeological Park’s chief Massimo Osannat, about 80 fast-food eateries have been found at Pompeii. This one is different because it’s the first to be completely uncovered to reveal the full details of the designs, which were essentially advertisements for the food sold from the stands. All this gave researchers and historians a much deeper understanding of what people ate and how the food was sold and promoted.