Males and females at Herculaneum had different diets, research suggests

‘Males had greater access to marine fish at Herculaneum and more broadly in Roman Italy.’

A team of researchers has successfully reconstructed the diets of victims of Vesuvius discovered at Herculaneum in richer detail than ever before, offering new evidence that males and females ate differently.

Herculaneum was destroyed in the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. In 1980, the remains of 340 individuals were discovered on a beach near the city and within nine fornici (arched stone vaults) adjacent to the shoreline, where victims sought shelter from the pyroclastic flow.

View of the skeletal remains in one of the fornici. Image: Luciano Fattore, Sapienza Universtà, di Roma.

Though previous analyses of organic materials preserved at Herculaneum have offered insight into what the ancient population ate, they provide only limited knowledge of how diet varied within the society.

As part of a scientific study led by the University of York’s BioArCH team, bone collagen was extracted from the ribs of 11 adult males and six adult females from one of the fornici. To measure the isotopic values of nitrogen and carbon (which offer dietary information), they conducted compound-specific stable isotope analysis of amino acids obtained from the collagen samples. Bayesian modelling was then used to compare the isotopic values.

The findings, recently published in Scientific Advances, reveal that, on average, the male individuals had consumed a slightly higher proportion of cereals and obtained around 60% more of their total dietary protein from seafood than their female contemporaries. The data also showed that the females had acquired a greater proportion of their dietary protein from terrestrial products (meat, dairy, eggs) and locally grown plants.

View of the fornici at Herculaneum. Image: Amphipolis, Wikimedia Commons.

The paper’s authors propose that these significant differences in consumption between males and females imply that ‘access to food was differentiated according to gender’ – perhaps as a result of differing occupations or household status.

Silvia Soncin, PhD student and the study’s lead author, said: ‘Our research builds on what we know that males had greater access to marine fish at Herculaneum and more broadly in Roman Italy.

‘Males were more likely to be directly engaged in fishing and maritime activities, they generally occupied more privileged positions in society, and were freed from slavery at an earlier age providing greater access to expensive commodities, such as fresh fish.’

‘Historical sources often allude to differential access to food stuffs across Roman society but rarely provide direct or quantitative information,’ said Professor Oliver Craig, the Director of BioArCH. ‘The remains of those who perished at Herculaneum offer a unique opportunity to examine the lifestyles across an ancient community who lived and died together.’