Tag Archives: lrb

Ancient Roman salad crispers?

The classicist Mary Beard (@wmarybeard) has a saucily titled piece, Banter about Dildoes, in the latest edition of The London Review of Books, in which she reviews Shopping in Ancient Rome: The Retail Trade in the Late Republic and the Principate by Claire Holleran (Amazon uk|.com).

In her review, Beard states:

The [Pompeii and Herculaneum food and drink] bars are a well-known conundrum. It always used to be thought that the big jars set into their counters held wine and cheap hot food, soups and stews – ladled out to a poor and hungry clientèle by an accommodating landlord or landlady. But the jars are not glazed, and could not be removed for cleaning. It doesn’t take long to see that they would be completely inappropriate for liquids, hot or cold – not to mention a deadly health risk.

I visited Pompeii in 2010. Never one to walk past a bar, I went into several, and even photographed some of the jars to which Beard refers (although I had no idea at the time that they were conundrums to anyone other than me):

Pompeii bar

A Pompeii bar in 2010.

Ever one to hypothesise, I have just emailed the following suggestion to the LRB. I'm sure I can't be the first person to suggest this solution to the conundrum:

Mary Beard (LRB, 3 January 2013) describes the conundrum of big storage jars set into Pompeii and Herculaneum shop counters, the non-glazed nature of which would make them unsuitable for food or drink storage.

In some hot countries, such as Spain and India, porous pots are still used to cool water. In a process similar to human sweating, water stored in the pots slowly seeps to the surface and evaporates, thereby cooling the pot and the water still inside. In a more modern, patented African take on this old idea, glazed food-storage pots are placed in wet sand inside larger porous pots to make solar-powered ‘pot-in-pot refrigerators’.

Perhaps Mary Beard's enigmatic jars were the Roman equivalents of wine chillers or salad crispers.

Richard Carter

I had a great time in Pompeii, although I failed to track down the domus of the hero of my school Latin textbooks, Lucius Caecilius Iucundus.

You can see some of my other photos from Pompeii here.

Postscript (19-Jan-2013): A slightly edited version of my letter appeared in the 24-Jan-2013 edition of The London Review of Books.

Darwin's uncontrollable farting

I have just emailed the following to the London Review of Books, in response to their recent piece entitled Gutted:

Steven Shapin writes that Darwin's uncontrollable retching and farting seriously limited his public life (LRB, 30 June).

Some years ago, to my delight, I worked out that the great man's full name, Charles Robert Darwin, is an anagram of 'rectal winds abhorrer'.

Unfortunately for my anagram, the meanings of words, like species, can evolve. On the rare occasions that Darwin mentioned his gaseous problems to friends, he always used the word 'flatulence'. Nowadays, we think of flatulence as being synonymous with farting, but, in Darwin's day, it simply meant (as it technically still does) an accumulation of gases in the alimentary canal.

While I'm sure that Darwin, like the rest of us, must have vented his excess gas one way or the other, there is no reason to believe that his farts were uncontrollable.

Richard Carter
The Friends of Charles Darwin

(As a postscript, I should perhaps add that, although Darwin's nickname at school was Gas, this had nothing to do with his alimentary system, and everything to do with his passion for manufacturing gases in his amateur chemical laboratory at home.)

(As a second postscript, I should add that the LRB published the above letter in their 28-Jul-2011 edition.)

To the editor of the London Review of Books

Marina Warner (LRB 09-Apr-2009) states that Edward Heron-Allen 'wrote the definitive work on barnacles'. Polymath that Heron-Allen undoubtedly was, as is usually the case in matters biological, the definitive work on barnacles is by Charles Darwin, namely his series of monographs on living and fossil cirripedia (1851-55).
Richard Carter, FCD
The Friends of Charles Darwin

See also: Royal Society podcast - The Singular Life of Edward Heron-Allen FRS (mp3)