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Full Version: Thermopolia
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I’ve been reading quite a bit on Pompeii and Herculaneum and I’m troubled by the descriptions of the dolia set into the counters in the various thermopolia that have been found. The counters are positioned such that they stand between the vendor and the customer. Because these dolia are made of porous terracotta it is now generally thought that these vessels were used for the storage of bulk dried edibles such as nuts and the like. While I don’t doubt that liquid storage would have been problematic I have a hard time understanding why they would go through all the trouble to install such large clay vessels inside a low masonry counter simply to hold items that might best be stored in portable containers that wouldn’t be in that way all the time. What am I missing?

-Jeff Henion
Mystified in New York.
Porous ceramics can also be used to keep water or other liquids cool by evaporation through the porous material, Such vessels could have been used as wine coolers.
I am not aware of anyone who's scraped and studied the insides of the dolia. Traces of organic material like resin may still be there, but I don't know. Most amphora were disposable (think Mons Testacchia) or resued like all the pottery you see in walls and sidewalks in Pompeii and Herculaneum). Plenty are still in situ in these sites, so maybe someone has checked the interiors? The amphora brought up from ship wrecks are more closely studied.
The dolia in question are actually built into the counters and surrounded by solid masonry so it doesn’t seem likely that cooling by evaporation would be possible. The insides of these vessels were examined in detail but only one was definitively found to contain any organic material (apparently walnuts). Broad beans and olives were found in amphorae located elsewhere in some of these establishments. While the limited physical evidence must carry the day, I figured I would throw my question out to the group and see if anyone here had a different thought on the matter.

-Jeff Henion
The data suggests that the embedded pots were just used as permanent 'sockets' for other ceramic vessels to sit in. This would account for the meagre traces of organic contents. Such an arrangement makes practical sense, as a fixed container would be virtually impossible to clean out effectively.
Glad youmentioned that. Peering into these where you can I could not clean one of these out, if that concerned them. But one might suppose that one would have been found with a container in it, which I dont think is so.
I think any Thermopolium being abandoned would be stripped of food first. Even the eruption of Vesuvius was not an instantaneous event. I could imagine that, with ash falling, a thermopolium owner would get all his food and drink stocks under cover in lidded containers.Have there been any recent excavations of thermopolia in Pompeii or Herculanium?
There are several sites in Pompeii where it is obvious people dropped what they were doing (literally) and ran for it. The counter of Asellina was left intact, and a recent excavation just a few doors down shows painters dropping their pots which splattered across the wall and floor.
That, indeed, is one of the reasons these places mystify me. Numerous finds indicate that at least some people stuck around in both Pompeii and Herculaneum and continued their regular activities right up until the mountain erupted. Certainly carbonized organic remains have been found at both sites. The general theory is that many of the poorer residents of these communities would take some portion of their meals from these establishments and indeed, may have lacked the facilities do otherwise. So, presumably at least a few of places were up and running on the last day. And yet, aside from a bag of coins found in one dolia, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that these containers were found with any contents or residue whatsoever. :?

Jeff Henion
"I'm confused, but that's not unusual."
There was a tripod container on the counter at Asellina's that had water in it. Not sure if the water was from the last day or had seeped in in the intervening centuries.