Pompeiian Popinae Pots Redux

A couple of weeks ago, we mentioned a review in the LRB by Mary Beard on a couple of tomes (Banter about Dildoes) and that article included, inter alia:

Take the shops and bars you see lining the streets in all the best-preserved Roman towns. Walk down the main streets in Pompeii or Herculaneum and (as modern tourist guides always insist) you can feel comfortably at home in what seems recognisably close to a modern cityscape: bars and cafés (tabernae, popinae or cauponae) with their counters facing the pavement to catch passing trade, and shops (also called tabernae) with wide openings to display products and entice customers inside. There are even traces of the big shutters that made these openings secure at night, and the little snicket doors that would let the proprietor into his establishment if he didn’t want to take his shutters fully down. So far, so good. But Holleran makes it clear that, if you want to go much further, and repopulate these places, or even simply work out what they sold and to whom, things get much trickier.

The bars are a well-known conundrum. It always used to be thought that the big jars set into their counters held wine and cheap hot food, soups and stews – ladled out to a poor and hungry clientèle by an accommodating landlord or landlady. But the jars are not glazed, and could not be removed for cleaning. It doesn’t take long to see that they would be completely inappropriate for liquids, hot or cold – not to mention a deadly health risk. Amedeo Maiuri, who directed the excavations over several decades of the 20th century (adeptly navigating both the fascist and post-fascist periods), claimed that at Herculaneum he had discovered all kinds of pulse and grain in them. But this turns out from the detailed excavation reports to have been largely wishful thinking (the beans and grains were actually found in amphorae on the upper floors). As Holleran notes, the only food that we know for sure was found in a counter jar at Herculaneum is walnuts. That suggests rather sparser fare for the average Roman takeaway customer (though presumably the beans and grains upstairs were cooked up into something).

Following assorted twitter retweets this a.m. (I’m honestly not sure how I got there), we note a letter to the editor of the LRB by one Richard Carter commenting on the above:

Mary Beard describes the conundrum of the big storage jars set into the shop counters of Pompeii and Herculaneum: they were unglazed, which would surely make them unsuitable for the storage of food or drink (LRB, 3 January). In some hot countries, such as Spain and India, porous pots are still used to cool water. In a process similar to human sweating, water stored in the pots slowly seeps to the surface and evaporates, thereby cooling the pot and the water that remains inside. In a more modern, African take on this old idea, glazed food-storage pots are placed in wet sand inside larger porous pots to make solar-powered ‘pot-in-pot refrigerators’. Perhaps Mary Beard’s enigmatic jars were the Roman equivalent of wine chillers.

… this is a very  interesting suggestion, and perhaps we need to take it a bit further and possibly suggest the water in these things was the stuff they watered down the wine with (I’m not sure if that’s what Mr Carter is suggesting directly or not, but if so, full marks)? I think we often forget the ‘watering down’ thing when we think of ancient drinking … Then again, why would they need so many of them in one establishment (e.g. 3-5) ? Did they get that much business so quickly?

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2 thoughts on “Pompeiian Popinae Pots Redux

  1. You may have missed Mr. Carter’s point. If these were “solar-powered ‘pot-in-pot’ refrigerators,” then the liquid they contained would be for cooling whatever liquid was in the inner pot. This water in the outer, porous pot would be a refrigerant, rather than the water for mixing wine. Fascinating.

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