Traci Watson, Special to USA TODAY, Feb 2016
Finally a decent place to eat! Archaeologists digging in southern France have found a restaurant-like structure roughly 2,100 years old, making it one of the earliest such taverns in the western Mediterranean.
The dining complex in the ancient town of Lattara was open for business as the Romans conquered the area, bringing with them ideas that would shake up the local economy and way of life. According to the tavern’s discoverers, Lattara’s people were farmers before the Romans marched in; after the Roman takeover, new kinds of jobs likely arose – and so did dining out.
“If you’re not growing your own food, where are you going to eat?” says archaeologist Benjamin Luley of Gettysburg College, co-author of a new study in Antiquity describing the site. “The Romans, in a very practical Roman way, had a very practical solution … a tavern.”
At first the researchers thought they’d uncovered a bakery. In a room near a key intersection in Lattara, excavations over the last five years revealed the remains of three indoor gristmills and a trio of ovens, each three to four feet across, commonly used to bake flatbread. A home cook had no need for equipment on such an industrial scale.
In another room just across a courtyard, earthen benches lined the walls and a charcoal-burning hearth occupied the middle of the floor. Those features suggested a sit-down joint rather than a takeout counter.
The menu must’ve been extensive. Fish bones littered the kitchen, and bones from sheep and cattle were found in the courtyard. The floors were scattered with shards of fancy drinking bowls imported from Italy, as well as debris from large platters and bowls, report Luley and his colleague Gaël Piquès of France’s National Center for Scientific Research.
The interpretation of the site as a tavern is “plausible,” says one scholar who was not associated with the research. The Celtic people of western Europe “were famous (or infamous) in antiquity for their love of wine,” the University of Buffalo’s Stephen Dyson, an expert in Roman archaeology, says via email. The ceramic remains show “they imported the drinking vessels as well as the wine. No guzzling, sotted Celts these.”
But the site did not yield any coins, suggesting the complex could’ve been a private dining room, says Roman historian Penny Goodman of Britain’s University of Leeds. She also says there was ample trade and jobs for artisans in the region even before the Roman conquest, so it wasn’t necessarily the Romans’ arrival that spurred demand for a tavern.
Luley responds that before the Romans, Lattara show no evidence of large workshops that needed lots of labor. He also argues that people tend not to lose coins, so the absence of money in the tavern doesn’t mean diners weren’t paying for their meals.
Broken pottery, however, was regarded as trash, and at Lattara that trash is now providing a window into the carousing that took place. “They’re eating a fair amount,” Luley says, but “the most common ceramic object we found are drinking cups,” making a first-century-B.C. diner sound like the bars of today.