Pompeii ruins show that the Romans invented recycling
Excavations reveal that rubbish left outside the city walls wasn’t just dumped. It was rather being collected, sorted and resold
The Romans were expert engineers, way ahead of their time on things such as underfloor heating, aqueducts and the use of concrete as a building material.
Now it turns out that the Romans were also masters at recycling their rubbish.
Researchers at Pompeii, the city buried under a thick carpet of volcanic ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, have found that huge mounds of rubbish apparently dumped outside the city walls were in fact “staging grounds for cycles of use and reuse”.
Professor Allison Emmerson, an academic who is part of a team working at Pompeii, said rubbish was piled up along almost the entire external wall on the city’s northern side, among other sites.
Some of the mounds were several metres high and included bits of ceramic and plaster, which could be repurposed as construction materials.
These mounds were previously thought to have been formed when an earthquake struck the city about 17 years before the volcano erupted, Emmerson said. Most were cleared in the mid-20th century, but some are still being discovered.
Scientific analysis has now traced some of the refuse from city sites to suburban deposits equivalent to modern landfills, and back to the city, where the material was incorporated into buildings, such as earth floors.
With fellow archaeologists Steven Ellis and Kevin Dicus, who worked on the University of Cincinnati’s excavations, Emmerson has studied how the ancient city was constructed and said that:
“We found that part of the city was built out of trash. The piles outside the walls weren’t material that’s been dumped to get rid of it. They’re outside the walls being collected and sorted to be resold inside the walls.”
The Porta Ercolano suburb outside the northern wall of Pompeii. When the area was excavated, ancient rubbish was found piled in and around the tombs, houses and shops.
Emmerson and her peers used soil samples to trace the movement of rubbish across the city. “The soil that we excavate differs based on where the garbage was left originally,”
“Garbage dumped in places like latrines or cesspits leaves behind a rich, organic soil. In contrast, waste that accumulated over time on the streets or in mounds outside the city results in a much sandier soil.
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.”
Some walls, for example, included reused materials such as pieces of tile and broken amphorae, and lumps of mortar and plaster. “Almost all such walls received a final layer of plaster, hiding the mess of materials within,” she said.