Olive Oil Note Rewrites History of Vesuvius Eruption

A scrawl that rewrote the history of the eruption of Vesuvius referred to an olive oil pantry.

Nov. 9, 2018
By Ylenia Granitto

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The archae­o­log­i­cal site of Pompeii con­tin­ues to be a valu­able source of evi­dence of life in ancient times, in par­tic­u­lar dur­ing the years of the Pax Romana. Yet, dur­ing this phase of rel­a­tive peace and sta­bil­ity for the Roman Empire, in 79 A.D. the erup­tion of Vesuvius in Campania dis­rupted the exis­tence of inhab­i­tants of nearby vil­lages which were buried by a thick layer of ash and pumice.

The note is located near a ser­vice area which was man­aged by the house­keep­ing staff, and it brings to our atten­tion domes­tic details which are often kept at the mar­gins of lit­er­a­ture.- Giulia Ammannati, Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa

A large num­ber of sub­merged items have been pre­served thanks to the lack of air and mois­ture, and among these is the old­est known bot­tle of olive oil, recently exam­ined and dis­played in Naples.

Over the past few weeks, a major break­through brought olive oil and his­tory together again when Giulia Ammannati, a pro­fes­sor of Latin pale­og­ra­phy at the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa, dis­cov­ered that a char­coal epi­graph that rede­fined that fate­ful date of the erup­tion from August to October actu­ally referred to olive oil.

The rev­e­la­tion arrived after the expe­ri­enced pale­o­g­ra­pher accepted the invi­ta­tion by the General Director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, Massimo Osanna to eval­u­ate an inscrip­tion found on a wall of the Garden House,’ located in the area of the Regio V.

According to Ammannati’s read­ing, the ref­er­ence to the date XVI (ante) K (alen­das) NOV (embres),” which means on the 16th day before the Kalends of November” — namely October 17 — would be fol­lowed by the words in olearia / proma sum­serunt […], which trans­lates to they took in (or from) the olive oil pantry.”

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A pre­vi­ous inter­pre­ta­tion of the his­toric text was: in[d]ulsit / pro masumis esurit[ioni], or he indulged in food in an exces­sive way.”

The approved trans­la­tion of the entire sen­tence would, there­fore, be: On October 17 they took [some­thing] in (or from) the olive oil pantry, reveal­ing the pres­ence of a ware­house where olive oil was stored,” the Tuscan researcher told Olive Oil Times. It is not excluded that wine and other food­stuffs were kept in this back­room of the house.” And now we have to dis­cover it, the General Director Osanna tweeted while announc­ing the rev­e­la­tion.

The inscrip­tion was found in a part of the house which was likely under restruc­tur­ing at the time of the erup­tion when the rest of the build­ing had already been com­pletely ren­o­vated. According to the experts, char­coal, which is frag­ile and evanes­cent, could not last long over time, thus there is lit­tle doubt that it was writ­ten in October 79 A.D., just a week before the cat­a­stro­phe.

The study is pro­gress­ing, but we can imme­di­ately rec­og­nize how impor­tant this find­ing is, because thanks to a series of evi­dence, we can tell that the erup­tion took place on October 24, and not on August 24 as was pre­vi­ously thought,” Ammannati revealed. The year is not reported, but a series of ele­ments of the con­text allowed us to con­firm that period.” Archaeological find­ings, such as pome­gran­ates and berries which do not grow in sum­mer, fur­therly con­firmed that the main event hap­pened in the autumn of 79 A.D.

We can assume that an error occurred dur­ing the process of trans­mis­sion of the ancient doc­u­ments. The col­lec­tion of let­ters where Pliny the Younger describes the erup­tion (Epistulae VI.16, VI.20) is our ref­er­ence text, but we do not have the orig­i­nal man­u­script,” the pale­o­g­ra­pher clar­i­fied, explain­ing that the let­ters have been copied sev­eral times since antiq­uity, and over the cen­turies scribes may have inserted a mis­take that altered the orig­i­nal date.”

Thanks to this inscrip­tion we can also make very inter­est­ing con­sid­er­a­tions about the habits at that time. It was cer­tainly an extem­po­rary anno­ta­tion, a kind of ser­vice note, des­tined to have a value lim­ited in time and a rapid caducity due to its con­tin­gent util­ity,” Ammannati pointed out, describ­ing an ancient memo that can be com­pared to an ances­tor of the mod­ern post-it note. And in fact, part of the anno­ta­tion appears to have been erased, as if what the reminder had been accom­plished.

The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (c. 1821) by John Martin

Spectrometric and ultra­vi­o­let reflec­to­graphic inves­ti­ga­tions will be car­ried out to detect traces of the deleted words.

The miss­ing part is most likely refer­ring to the olive oil pantry,” Ammannati con­tin­ued. Something was taken or, alter­na­tively, a pay­ment was made in rela­tion to the olive oil stor­age room. And, it is inter­est­ing to note the use of the word proma, nor­mally uti­lized as an adjec­tive and rarely as a noun as is in this case, where it defines the (cella) olearia proma, that is the olive oil pantry.”

Such inscrip­tions are very use­ful because they allow us to retrieve words that we can­not find in lit­er­a­ture, such as tech­ni­cal terms and words com­monly used. Since we have almost exclu­sively lit­er­ary texts from antiq­uity, these Pompeian inscrip­tions are valu­able to us, as they bring us back to the use of liv­ing, col­lo­quial lan­guage,” Ammannati added. In this case, we can assume that this term was used daily because words used often are eas­ily exposed to changes.”

Moreover, the note is located near a ser­vice area which was man­aged by the house­keep­ing staff, and it brings to our atten­tion domes­tic details which are often kept at the mar­gins of lit­er­a­ture, that is why it is even more inter­est­ing,” Ammannati con­cluded.

At the time of writ­ing, the archae­ol­o­gists have already unearthed the Garden House” entrance, the din­ing room and the huge green area that gave the build­ing its name, while the ser­vice area should be com­pletely retrieved within a few months. So pre­sum­ably, the olive oil pantry, which still lies beneath the man­tle of vol­canic debris, will, at last, come to light.


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