06/17/2011 05:49 pm ET | Updated Aug 17, 2011

Ancient Excrement Excavation Provides Clues To Rich Roman Diet

When southern Italy's Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, it preserved the buildings, monuments and mosaics of Roman cities Pompeii and Herculaneum forever. But not everything in the lava's path was quite so picturesque. Herculaneum's pristine cobblestone streets concealed a relatively sophisticated sewer system, which led from resident's homes to huge underground septic tanks. Their contents provide our solidest evidence of what typical Romans ate. For years, teams of archeologists have been sifting through literally tons of ancient excrement to try and find out the nitty-gritty details of the Roman diet.

They've exhumed quite the smorgasbord. Romans seem to have eaten a fairly typical "Mediterranean diet" of meat and vegetables, supplemented by delicacies like figs, dormice and sea urchin. The excretory remains support what scholars had already gathered from literary sources like Apicius's cookbook, which includes six recipes for sea urchin—a whole chapter's worth.

The cesspit investigation is a long ways from being done; archeologists expect to find much more by the time they finish poring through the 2000-year-old feces.