Friday, June 12, 2015


Archaeologist Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow had members and guests of the Archaeological Associates of Greenwich alternately aghast and amused last week at tales of the sordid smells and deplorable sanitation that existed in places like Pompeii, Herculaneum, Ostia and Rome in the first and second centuries.

Professor AOKO, as her classical studies students at Brandeis University call her, addressed "Raising a Stink in the Roman City: Creating an Archaeology of Smell" at the Bruce Museum. "Stench and smells and health are all pungent topics," she began, "and in the first and second centuries AD these cities were very smelly places where people got used to sordid smells." She presented a drawing of a typical kitchen scene that showed a woman cooking a stew -- flush up against the toilet.

"Shops and homes were mixed in together and rich and poor houses were mixed." There were "garlic sellers, felt makers, poultry handlers, fish sellers, perfume makers and olive oil makers," all in the residential mix. "Nothing stinks more than rotting olive oil," she said, "even 2,500 years later in excavations." People would throw dead animals into the streets. "With street fires burning flesh ... there were hideous smells that had to be endured," she said.

Daily baths were definitely not de rigueur. A photo showed a "hot tub" in Pompeii that was said to hold up to eight people. "Your companions might have open wounds, lesions, diarrhea, gonorrhea, or a strong smell of excrement or urine -- all very unhealthy," Koloski-Ostrow said. Romans were said to have lice-infested hair and bad breath, and kept animals in their houses, which added to "the smelly interiors, the stench," she said.

Koloski-Ostrow moved on to the state of Roman amphitheaters -- in particular one called Pozzuoli located on the Bay of Naples. "It's the best preserved amphitheater in the world," she said, pointing out on a slide the holes in the arena through which the animals were brought up from below. "The smell after days of games must have been ghastly, that of dead men, animals, blood and animal parts, and there must have been millions of flies," she said.

After Koloski-Ostrow completed her fragrant account of ancient Rome, one of the evening's attendees asked a question surely on the minds of many: How did Romans counteract all the terrible smells on and around them?

"With incense and perfume," Koloski-Ostrow answered. "They mixed perfume and sweat."


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