Pompeii excavations show Romans were big on recycling: 'Waste was collected and sorted to be resold'

A team of researchers has been excavating around the sites of the once-thriving, ancient city of Pompeii, that was buried under a thick blanket of volcanic ash and pumice after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD


                            Pompeii excavations show Romans were big on recycling: 'Waste was collected and sorted to be resold'
(Getty Images)

History entails that many of the modern contraptions that we often take for granted were invented by the Romans, back when we'd have never imagined the human race being as advanced and intellectual. The Romans can be accredited for the invention of concrete, roads, books, newspapers, and more, things that we see daily and can't go without. The ancient Romans were way of ahead of their time.

They were master engineers whose brick sewer models happen to be the ones we still use today, not to mention the aqueducts that gave the people of Rome water, as well as the concept of underfloor heating.

As it turns out, Romans were also the pioneers of one other modern innovation, the systematic disposal of rubbish or recycling, as per new research. A team of researchers has been excavating around the sites of the once-thriving, ancient city of Pompeii, that was buried under a thick blanket of volcanic ash and pumice after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

Professor Allison Emmerson, and American academic and part of the research team has revealed that they discovered huge mounds of rubbish left outside the city walls which were “staging grounds for cycles of use and reuse”. The Romans were basically big on recycling - their rubbish was in fact being collected, sorted, and resold. 

General view of ruins along an ancient road at the archaeological area on April 12, 2014, in Pompei, Italy (Getty Images)

Professor Emmerson said that the refuse was piled up along most of the external wall on the northern front of the city, among its other sites. "We found that at least part of the city was built out of trash. These piles aren't outside the walls, because it's material that's been dumped outside to get rid of it. They're outside the walls very purposely, being collected and sorted to be resold inside the walls", she added.

Some of these mounds were several meters high, comprising general urban waste along with bits of ceramic and plaster which could double as construction materials for buildings and filling earth floors.

The mounds may have been formed around the time an earthquake struck the city, about 17 years prior to the devastation that destroyed the city but its contents do not resemble rubble from a natural disaster. "The idea has been that all this garbage is the result of that earthquake - rubble that was cleared out of the city and dumped outside of it," said Professor Emmerson.

"As I was working at Pompeii, outside the urban area, I thought this was very strange because I see the city really extending outside the walls into the suburbs…. So it didn't make sense to me that they were also being used as landfill," she added.

Most of these mounds were cleared in the mid 20th century, long before any scholars showed historical interest in trash recovered from archaeological sites. However, some are still being discovered. 

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius destroys the Roman city of Pompeii in AD 79 (Getty Images)

Using scientific analysis to detect the disparities in the dirt and soil and track the movement of garbage and its resume, Professor Emmerson along with fellow archeologists Steven Ellis and Kevin Dicus of the University of Cincinnati's Pompeii excavations studied how the ancient Roman city was constructed. Professor Emmerson, who teaches Classical Studies at Tulane University, New Orleans, said that there have been discussions and about garbage in ancient Rome, and the latest research sheds light on some unprecedented details of how the rubbish was collected and recycled.

"What I've done is trace its path", she affirmed. "You gather up your garbage…it gets moved out into either abandoned lots inside the city or in large quantities out into open spaces outside the city where it can really gather in very large quantities, which make it valuable, just like modern recyclables. It becomes valuable en masse."

"The difference in soil allows us to see whether the garbage had been generated in the place where it was found, or gathered from elsewhere to be reused and recycled," she added.

Professor Emmerson also pointed out that some of the walls in Pompei include materials like tile pieces, amphorae, chunks of mortar and plaster, just like materials usually found in recycling plants. "Almost all such walls received a final layer of plaster, hiding the mess of materials within," she explained. She will be including her latest finding in her upcoming book 'Life and Death in the Roman Suburb', which is slated to be published next month by the Oxford University Press. 

Archaeological work is carried out during the excavation of the Roman city of Pompeii, buried after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 (Getty Images)

She also stressed on the fact that while the processing of waste today is to get rid of it from our daily lives, that's not what the Pompeiians aimed at. "For the most part, we don't care what happens to our trash, as long as it's taken away from us," said Professor Emmerson. "What I've found in Pompeii is an entirely different priority, that waste be collected and sorted for recycling."

The Pompeiians lived close to where they dumped their garbage, which most of us are likely to find bizarre and unacceptable. However, they did this not because their city lacked infrastructure and they didn't bother with waste management, but because their entire urban management system was based around completely different principles.

"This point has relevance for the modern garbage crisis. The countries that most effectively manage their waste have applied a version of the ancient model, prioritizing commodification, rather than simple removal", Professor Emmerson said. 

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