Herculaneum sewer sheds light on secrets of Roman life

By Duncan Kennedy
BBC News, Rome

Image caption,
Skeletons covered by the eruption of Vesuvius have been studied intensively

Archaeologists have been discovering how Romans lived 2,000 years ago, by studying what they left behind in their sewers.

A team of experts has been sifting through hundreds of sacks of human excrement.

They found a variety of details about their diet and their illnesses.

This unconventional journey into the past took the team down into an ancient sewer below the town of Herculaneum.

Along with neighbouring Pompeii, it was one of the settlements buried by the Vesuvius volcanic explosion of 79AD.

In a tunnel 86m long, they unearthed what is believed to be the largest deposit of human excrement ever found in the Roman world.

Seven hundred and fifty sacks of it to be exact, containing a wealth of information.

The scientists have been able to study what foods people ate and what jobs they did, by matching the material to the buildings above, like shops and homes.

Image caption,
A street in Pompeii which, like Herculaneum, was covered by a volcanic eruption in 79AD

This unprecedented insight into the diet and health of ancient Romans showed that they ate a lot of vegetables.

One sample also contained a high white blood cell count, indicating, say researchers, the presence of a bacterial infection.

The sewer also offered up items of pottery, a lamp, 60 coins, necklace beads and even a gold ring with a decorative gemstone.

But it's the human remains that have most astonished the archaeologists, all going to prove that where there's muck, there's memory.