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The Bread Loaf from Herculaneum

Discovered in 1930, this loaf of sourdough bread was baked on the morning of the 24th August, 79 CE. Frozen in time, the loaf had survived the eruption of Mount Vesuvius as it was protected by the oven in which it was discovered.

This ancient bread has been “carbonised” by pyroclastic flow (lava), causing the food to dehydrogenate, condense and burn. It’s similar to if you left a pizza in the oven at 200 degrees for three days. Definitely not edible but you would still be able to tell what it was in the oven.

Wall Painting from Herculaneum, Photo by Carlo Raso.

From the photo of the bread, we can see that the loaf had been incised into 8 pieces, to later be separated into smaller portions. Such loaves have also been depicted in wall paintings from Herculaneum and Pompeii.

Such archaeological discoveries and paintings from villas in the area help inform us of the Ancient Roman diet. Consequently suggesting their daily routines and filling in the blanks of their lives.

Food became a popular subject of mosaics and paintings for dining rooms at this time. For example, below we find a marine themed mosaic from the House of Faun in Herculaneum. We know that fish provided a key part of local individual’s diet as they were situated on the coast.

They also ate:

Pompeii Mosaic, Photo by Marisa Ranieri Panetta.
  • Almonds
  • Olives
  • Apples
  • Pears
  • Broad beans
  • And much more!

The loaf of Herculaneum is also wrapped in a small piece of string, suggesting that, after being baked, it would be transported elsewhere and be carried by the string. This informs us that this location was in fact a bakery, designed to produce and sell goods to the villagers, rather than just being the oven of a small family.

There is also a small stamp on the bread which reads “Celer, Slave of Quintus Granius Verrus”. This stamp has been incredibly well preserved through the process of carbonisation. Interestingly, we know that Celer actually survived this eruption as he was listed in a later document of freed slaves!

This incredibly well preserved bread is not only something Mary Berry would be proud of, but it also acts as a window into the ancient world and shines light on the lives of the working class, lives previously underrepresented in ancient sources.

Further Reading:

  • Holleran, C. (2012) Shopping in Ancient Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press). 
  • Matyszak, P. (2017) 24 Hours in Ancient Rome: A day in the life of people who lived there (London: Michael O’Mara Books Limited). 

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