Pompeii Archaeological Research Project: Porta Stabia
A composite photo shows the location of two trash pits in close proximity to a cistern that held drinking and washing water in a home in Pompeii. Residents' casual attitude toward trash explains why tombs were filled with household garbage, an archaeologist says.
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updated 1/6/2012 11:38:57 AM ET 2012-01-06T16:38:57

The tombs of Pompeii, the Roman city buried by a volcanic eruption in A.D. 79, had a litter problem. Animal bones, charcoal, broken pottery and architectural material, such as bricks, were found piled inside and outside the tombs where the city's dead were laid to rest.

To explain the presence of so much garbage alongside the dead, archaeologists have theorized that 15 years before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, an earthquake left Pompeii in disrepair. 

However, this theory is unlikely, according to an archaeologist who says the citizens of Pompeii may have just been messy, at least by modern, Western standards.

"We tend to assume things like that are universal, but attitudes toward sanitation are very culturally defined, and it looks like in Pompeii attitudes were very different than ours," said Allison Emmerson, a graduate student studying Roman archaeology in the classics department of the University of Cincinnati.

Archaeological evidence from the last 15 years indicates that the city likely did not fall into ruin after the earthquake in A.D. 62; rather than flee, citizens appear to have rebuilt, reconstructing public spaces and elite houses. When the eruption buried the city, new tombs were still being built and the city appeared prosperous, according to Emmerson. 

"It just didn’t make sense that trash would mean the tombs weren't being used," she said.   

In fact, the tombs weren't unique; excavators have found the same sort of household garbage in the city streets, along the walls of the city, even on the floors of homes. When Emmerson excavated a room in a house that appears to have also served as a restaurant, she found a cistern for storing water between two garbage pits packed with broken pottery and food waste, such as animal bones, grape seeds and olive pits.

No evidence has been found for a system for handling garbage or for dedicated dumps.

"The closest thing that has been found is a giant heap of garbage outside the city walls," she said.

The residents of Pompeii also appear not to have shared our conventions on burial. As Romans, they were primarily concerned with being remembered after death, so they sought tombs in high-traffic areas. Since Roman law and custom forbade cemeteries inside the city, the tombs ringed the city walls, and clustered at its gates.

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The walls of the tombs also served as the billboards of the day, bearing official graffiti announcing gladiator fights, and political advertisements for candidates for office in red paint. Other graffiti was of the "bathroom" variety, Emmerson said. These included more obscene versions of "I had a girl here," and messages back and forth scratched into the plaster of the tombs.

Emmerson is scheduled to present her work, which examines how Pompeii's tombs reflect the culture at the time, on Saturday at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Philadelphia.

You can follow LiveSciencesenior writer Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Explainer: Tales of seven cities, lost and found

  • Science / AAAS

    The Lost City of Z, a fabled metropolis of unimagined riches deep in the Amazon rain forest, has eluded explorers for centuries. But recently documented traces of a well-planned constellation of walled settlements arranged around central plazas and linked together with arrow-straight roads in the Upper Xingu region of the Brazilian Amazon may be the civilization that gave birth to the legend, scientists say. This image shows the charred remains of a house in the region that was uncovered as part of an archaeological project led by the University of Florida's Michael Heckenberger.

    Click the "Next" label for six more tales of cities lost or found.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Atlantis legend inspires hotel chain

    Joel Ryan  /  AP

    According to the Greek philosopher Plato, Atlantis was a powerful society that disappeared under the sea in a torrent of earthquakes after it failed to take the city of Athens. Some scholars consider Plato's account as purely fictional; others have scoured the world for evidence of its existence. One disputed theory holds that Atlantis was on a portion of the Mediterranean island Cyprus that was submerged during an earthquake thousands of years ago. The mythical allure of the lost city has spawned a luxury hotel chain. In this image, fireworks explode over the opening of the Atlantis resort in Dubai.

  • What happened to the lost colony of the Americas?

    Gerry Broome  /  AP

    Sometime in the late 1580s, 117 English colonists disappeared while attempting to become the first to settle the New World. Their settlement on what would become Roanoke Island, N.C., was found abandoned in 1590. To this day, scientists, scholars and the plain curious can't agree on what happened. Some people believe the colonists assimilated with neighboring Native Americans; others think they were either killed by their neighbors or sunk at sea while trying to flee. In the image shown here, Frank Ray, a member of the Lost Colony Center for Science and Research looks for clues that could help solve the mystery.

  • Lost city of Ubar found

    NASA

    From about 2,800 BC to AD 300, the city of Ubar in the Arabian Desert served as an outpost for the lucrative trade in frankincense, a sweet-smelling gum resin. Then, according to myth, the city sank in the sand, lost forever. And so it was until archaeologists armed with everything from ancient texts to remote-sensing technology on the space shuttle went looking for the lost city. The diffuse reddish streaks in this radar image from the space shuttle show ancient paths leading to and around the ancient site, which had literally sunk into an underground water hole. Ubar's discovery is an example of scientific sleuthing verifying ancient lore.

  • Lost city of the Incas remains a mystery

    Giulio Magli

    In 1911, U.S. explorer Hiram Bingham scrambled up a steep mountain side in southern Peru and encountered an ancient city of sorts beneath the undergrowth. The site, Machu Picchu, is popularly known as the Lost City of the Incas. What exactly the city was, however, remains a mystery. Scholars have variously theorized it was the birthplace of the Incas, a private estate, and a spiritual destination. Prior to Bingham's encounter, the city was lost to the jungle for about 500 years.

  • Itil, lost capital of Khazars, found?

    Dmitry Vasilyev  /  AP

    The excavated buildings shown here south of Moscow, Russia, may be remains of Itil, the capital city of the Khazars, a Russian scientist has reported. The Khazars ruled the steppes from Northern China to the Black Sea between the seventh and 10th centuries. Once conquered by the Russians, Itil disappeared without a trace. Some scholars believe it was swamped by the nearby rising Caspian Sea in the 14th century. Scientist Dmitry Vasiley at Astrakhan State University believes these flamed brick buildings are part of what was once Itil.

  • Layers of Troy found in Turkey

    Warner Bros. via Reuters

    Homer's epic poem the "Illiad" famously describes a war in the city of Troy, replete with tales about the heroic Greek warrior Achilles and a wooden horse. Questions about whether the city really existed appeared resolved in the 1800s when journalists, archaeologists and others zeroed in on a site and excavated the ancient city. The so-called archaeological Troy consists of nine cities built on top of one another and denoted with Roman numerals. Scholars believe Troy VI and Troy VII correspond with the city described in the Iliad. This image from the movie "Troy," which was based on the Iliad, shows the famous Trojan horse.

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