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Compacted Fecal Matter Reveals Biofuel Use in Ancient Rome

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Eight tons of ancient crap found by archaeologists in Italy have shed a bit of light on the lives of ordinary people during ancient Roman times.

Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, director of the Herculaneum Conservation Project, tells PhysOrg.com that his team stumbled upon an 86 meter-long sewer system near Pompeii while searching for a way to prevent flooding at a nearby site.



According to Wallace-Hadrill, the discovery is the largest find to date of Roman waste, but "had it been found the past it would have been thrown away because archaeologists did not have the technology available today to analyze it."

But, thanks (or not) to modern technology, Wallace-Hadrill and his crew are now sifting through 770 bags -- eight tons -- of "compacted human waste" in an attempt to gain insight into the diet of the lower and middle classes of 2,000 years ago.

Until now, PhysOrg.com's Lin Edwards writes, "much more was known about what rich people ate" and little was known about the rest of society.

Analyzing the compressed dung -- an unenviable task for even the most dedicated researcher -- has shown the residents of the area had a diet "much more varied than scientists had previously thought," with "plenty of fish and vegetables, eggs, olives, walnuts, spiky sea urchins and figs."

"Studying this waste and linking it to the inhabitants or workers in the buildings above is allowing us to learn more about their lives, the types of food people ate and the work they did," project manager Jane Thompson said.

The archaeologists also discovered that the ancient Romans were early proponents of renewable energy, burning olive pits for fuel.

Amazingly, two millennia later, olive pits were re-introduced as an energy source by Spanish company Calordom.



At the beginning of 2006, the Madrid-based company was apparently powering more than 300 buildings in Spain's capital city entirely on olive pits.

Said Calordom head Juan Cabello, "The energy is 100 percent non-polluting, a kilo of burnt olive cores, in reality wood compressed in a natural fashion, emits the same quantity of carbon gas as they would if you just left them to rot."

Of course, had the ancient Romans been truly ahead of their time, they might not have been so quick to flush 16,000 additional lbs. of perfectly good fuel down the toilet...

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