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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Roman Toilet Paper/Game Piece Revisionism?

More on the game piece side, actually , although I’ll admit to not knowing about the other personal hygiene method mentioned in this item (tip o’ the pileus to Sarah Bond for setting me on to this one and to Dan Diffendale for tracking down the original article). Here’s how the Daily Mail covers it:

Ancient artefacts thought to be early gaming pieces will have to be reclassified after new research which claims they were actually used to wipe bottoms.

The flat, disc-shaped Roman relics have been in the collection at Fishbourne Roman Palace in Chichester, West Sussex, since the Sixties.

Up until now museum experts thought the items were used for early games like draughts, but an article in the British Medical Journal has now proposed that they have a very different function.

It is well publicised that Romans used sponges mounted on sticks and dipped in vinegar as an alternative to toilet paper.

Yet the idea these ceramic discs might also have been used for such personal hygiene is a revelation.

The broken pieces – known as ‘pessoi’, meaning pebbles – range in size from 1in to 4in in diameter and were excavated near to the museum in 1960.

It had been thought that they were chips used to play an ancient game, also known as ‘pessoi’, but research published last month in the BMJ drew from classical sources to present evidence that they were also used to clean up after going to the toilet.

Noting the ancient Greek proverb ‘three stones are enough to wipe one’s a***’, Philippe Charlier, assistant professor in forensic medicine at the Raymond Poincaré University Hospital in Paris, points to archaeological excavations which have uncovered pessoi inside the pits of Greek and Roman latrines across the Mediterranean.

In one such dig in Athens, American archaeologists found a range of such pessoi 1.2-4in in diameter and 0.2-0.8in thick which, Professor Charlier wrote, were ‘re-cut from old broken ceramics to give smooth angles that would minimise anal trauma’.

Other evidence from the classical world has been passed down to us in the form of ceramics painted with representations of figures using pessoi to clean their buttocks.

According to Professor Charlier’s article, the Greeks and Romans even inscribed some of their pessoi with the names of their enemies or others they didn’t like.

Thus everytime they went to the toilet they would literally be wiping their faecal matter on the names of hated individuals.

Examples of such stones have been found by archaeologists bearing the names of such noted historical figures as Socrates, Themisthocles and Pericles, Professor Charlier reported.

Museum curator Dr Rob Symmons said: ‘When pottery like this is excavated it is someone’s job to wash it clean.

‘So, some poor and unsuspecting archaeologist has probably had the delight of scrubbing some Roman waste off of these pieces.

‘It is not beyond the realms of possibility that we could still find some further signs of waste or residue.

‘However, these pottery pieces have no monetary value because we are essentially talking about items once used as toilet roll.

‘The pieces had always been catalogued as as broken gaming pieces but I was never particularly happy with that explanation.

‘But when the article produced the theory they were used to wipe people’s bums I thought it was hilarious and it just appealed to me.

‘I love the idea we’ve had these in the museum for 50 years being largely ignored and now they are suddenly engaging items you can relate to.’

Dr Charlier’s research indicates that the use of such stones would have probably been rather hard on the rear ends of the ancients, and could have caused a variety of medical issues.

He suggests the abrasive texture of the pessoi could have led to skin irritation, mucosal damage, or complications of external haemorrhoids.

He wrote: ‘Maybe this crude and satiric description by Horace in his 8th epode (1st century BC) — “an a*** at the centre of dry and old buttocks mimicking that of a defecating cow”— refers to complications arising from such anal irritation.’

Dr Symmons, who has been at the Fishbourne Roman Palace museum for seven years, added: ‘We will obviously have to think about re-classifying these objects on our catalogue.

‘But we hope the pieces will make people smile when they learn what they were used for.

‘They would have probably been quite scratchy to use and I doubt they would be as comfortable as using toilet roll.

‘But in the Roman era it was that or very little else.’

… plenty of photos at the Daily Mail page, which will give you an idea of the (uncomfortable, it seems to me) size of these things.

As mentioned in the article, this all stems from an item in the British Medical Journal by Philippe Charlier et al (Toilet hygiene in the classical era). I was initially skeptical (primarily due to the size of the things) but there does appear to be archaeological, literary, and forensic (not sure if that’s the right word) support  for all this. An excerpt from the article (footnotes can be tracked down in the original):

Many pessoi have been found within the faecal filling of Greek and Roman latrines all around the Mediterranean world (fig 1).6 Pessoi found during the American excavation on the Athens’ agora, for example, are described as 3-10.5 cm in diameter and 0.6-2.2 cm thick and having been re-cut from old broken ceramics to give smooth angles that would minimise anal trauma.4 Use of a pessos can still be seen on a Greek cylix (wine cup) conserved in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, US. The cup, dating from 6th century BC, was found in Orvieto, Italy, and shows a man, semi-squatting with his clothing raised. The man is maintaining his balance with a cane in his right hand and is clearly wiping his buttocks using a pessos with his left hand.

Some scholars suggest that ostraka, small pieces of broken ceramic inscribed with names that the Greeks used to vote to ostracise their enemies, could also have been used as pessoi, literally putting faecal matter on the name of hated individuals. (Examples of ostraka with the names of Socrates, Themisthocles, and Pericles have been found in Athens and Piraeus).

The two pessoi in figure 1 belong to a private collection. Their precise archaeological origin (discovered in the filling of latrines close to deposits of excrement) and their morphology (rounded form with the edges recut) clearly indicate their use for anal cleaning. Solidified and partially mineralised excrement can still be seen on the non-cleaned and lateral surfaces, which has been confirmed by microscopy (fig 2).

… I’m still somewhat skeptical now, however, because all the evidence adduced (including a bit from Aristophanes that I skipped) comes from the Greek world. Then again, Graecia capta asperum victorem cepit, and perhaps that, er, assault extended to the latrines (the Wheelock gloss on Horace’s original seems punnishly appropriate here)? Or perhaps this gives us an idea of what Romans did in the latrines while waiting? Whatever the case, it’s another interesting detail to add to the arsenal …

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