Earlier this year, a team of archaeologists delved into some delicious secrets hidden within the volcanic tomb that is Pompeii. Guess what? They have uncovered a fresco showcasing what looks like an ancient ancestor of the beloved Italian pizza!
Italy’s Culture Ministry announced on Tuesday that a team of archaeologists have discovered a fresco still life, depicting what “looks like a pizza” in Pompeii. Destroyed in 79 AD by a major eruption of the Mount Vesuvius volcano, the plush Roman city was instantly buried beneath layers of ash and pumice, which served to preserve it for almost 2,000 years.
The Italian Ministry admits that what is painted is not actually a fully evolved pizza as we know today. It admits, “Technically,” the fresco depicts “flatbread, because a pizza includes tomato and mozzarella.” However, the archaeologists said “it may be a distant relative” of the popular modern dish. The Ministry also said the bread might have been eaten with “pomegranates or dates, or dressed with spices and a type of pesto sauce,” which look to be atop the bread. A wine goblet and other fruits are depicted on the same tray.
The ‘Pompeii pizza’ fresco is part of a decorated broken wall. ( Parco Archeologico Pompeii )
Pompeii’s Abundance of Bakeries
The fresco was discovered in a bakery which was attached to the hall of a large private house. The culture ministry said while the site was excavated in the 19th century, excavations in January identified the “ancient pizza” for the first time.
Bread was a staple food for the Roman population of Pompeii, and bakeries were vital establishments that provided the city’s residents with bread and other baked goods. Archaeological excavations into the deep layers of ash and pumice have revealed over 80 bakeries, complete with ovens, milling equipment, and storage areas.
The fresco was found in a house at site 10 of the Regio IX in Pompeii. ( Parco Archeologico Pompeii )
The Crafts Behind the Fresco
The fresco of the flatbread is essentially a portal, through which we can access a library of ancient crafts and skills. Grain, most often wheat, was ground into flour using circular stone millstones before it was mixed with water to make dough. Honey was added to make sweet bread, and nuts, fruits and vegetables were added for flavor and texture. The dough was shaped into different types of loaves, and flatbreads apparently, then placed inside stone or brick-built dome-shaped ovens to bake.
While the discovery of the flatbread in Pompeii this January certainly adds to the archaeological record, another similar fresco was discovered in a thermopolium, late in 2020. This fresco, depicting the pizza-like flatbread in Pompeii’s Regio V, provided insights into early forms of fast-food establishments in the Roman Empire.
The Ancient Origins of Flatbread
Early in 2021, I covered the story for Ancient Origins News of the opening of the “Thermopolium” in Pompeii, which was described as “an ancient fast food joint”. In that article I explained that the people of ancient Pompeii were “highly industrious, and ready-to-eat hot foods” which were very popular among the working-class people who couldn’t afford their own private kitchens.
The ancient origins of flatbread dates back to approximately 14,500 years ago in Jordan’s Black Desert region. Archaeologists uncovered charred remains of flatbread-like loaves, known as ” Natufian bread ,” made by the Natufian culture, who were an ancient hunter-gatherer society. The bread was created using wild barley and oats, which were ground into flour and mixed with water before being baked on hot stones, or in simple ovens. This discovery suggests that flatbread has been a part of human culinary history for perhaps tens of thousands of years.
Rise of ‘The Slice’ Predates the Pompeii Pizza For Sure
The oldest “recorded” (written) reference to a pizza-like dish can be traced back to ancient Greece in the 5th century BC. In his gastronomic poem “Hedypatheia” (Life of Luxury) the Greek poet Archestratus mentioned a dish called ” plakous,” which was a form of flatbread topped with various ingredients.
Derived from the Latin word “pinsa,” which means “flatbread” or “baked dough,” the word “pizza” first appears in written records in the late 10th century in Southern Italy referring to a plain flatbread without any specific toppings. However, the modern pizza was born in Naples, Italy, during the 18th and 19th centuries, as a round, thin crust topped with tomato sauce, cheese, and various toppings.
Top image: ‘Pompeii pizza’ fresco shows a flatbread with items on top. Source: Parco Archeologico Pompeii
By Ashley Cowie