If you look closely at the image above, you might notice a round, bready dish that closely resembles pizza. There’s a hitch, though: The Italian fresco was recently uncovered during an excavation in the city of Pompeii, which was buried in A.D. 79 after Mount Vesuvius erupted. That’s long before tomatoes, a South American crop, made it to the European continent, and before mozzarella was invented.
So, while archeologists are clear about the fact that the (delicious-looking) meal isn’t pizza, it might be “a distant ancestor of the modern dish,” according to a press release from the researchers working on the excavation. And the comparison goes beyond it being a round bread with toppings, said Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the director general of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii.
“I think about the contrast between a modest and simple meal that reminds us of a sphere that stands between the pastoral and the sacred on one side, and the luxury of the silver trays and the refinement of the artistic and literary representations on the opposite side,” he explained. “When considering this matter, how can we not think about pizza, also born as a ‘poor’ dish in southern Italy that has now conquered the world and is served in Michelin star restaurants.”
One of around 300 similar representations that can be found in Vesuvian cities, the fresco belongs to a genre referred to as xenia, a Greek word that translates to “hospitality” in English and stems from an ancient tradition. Such images showcase the types of gifts typically set out for guests.
The round piece of focaccia depicted in the newly discovered still life serves as a “table” for fruit and spices, and appears to show a pomegranate and a date “with spices and perhaps with a type of pesto,” per the release.
The artwork was found in the atrium of a house attached to a bakery, which was excavated in the 1800s. Findings at the time already pointed to the existence of a large hall, as well as an oven. Work on the site resumed in January, centuries later, leading to the discovery of the still life as well as the skeletons of three people who died in the volcanic eruption.
“Pompeii never ceases to amaze; it is a chest that always reveals new treasures,” said Italian Minister of Culture Gennaro Sangiuliano.