A still-life fresco painted on the wall of an ancient Pompeiian home looks a lot like a pizza, but it can’t be. So is it a distant ancestor of the world’s greatest food?

Scientists working at the Archaeological Park of Pompeii in Italy—the site of an infamous disaster resulting from an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.—recently uncovered the fresco during a new excavation. The painting dates back roughly 2,000 years ago and depicts a tray of various foods, including what looked to some like a pizza from not long after the time of Jesus Christ.

There’s just one problem. According to an iconographic analysis of the painting, two key ingredients are missing: tomatoes and mozzarella.

Recipe: How to make fresh mozzarella

And that’s not really too surprising. For starters, tomatoes originated in the Americas and were only introduced to Europe after colonization of the New World. Moreover, as Smithsonian Magazine noted in 2013, many Europeans in the colonial era thought tomatoes were poisonous, a “corrupt” plant of “ranke and stinking savour.”

Moreover, mozzarella probably didn’t exist at all in the first century. According to the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin website, mozz was likely first prepared by Benedictine monks in Italy during the 12th century.

this photo shows a team of excavators on a dig at Pompeii

Archaeological Park of Pompeii

But archaeologists studying the ruins of Pompeii say the food represented in the fresco “could be a distant ancestor of the modern dish” we know as pizza. In fact, it might be focaccia—not quite the same thing, of course, but another Italian culinary staple popular to this day.

An article published on the archaeological site’s website notes, “It is possible to suppose that next to a wine cup placed on a silver tray, there is depicted a flat focaccia that functions as a support for various fruits (that can be identified as pomegranate and maybe a date), with spices and perhaps with a type of pesto (moretum in Latin), as indicated by yellow and ochre dots, possibly condiments.”

The fresco belongs to an art genre known in antiquity as Xenia, inspired by “gifts of hospitality” offered to guests according to ancient Greek tradition. Meals in that era were often imbued with sacred meaning, bread in particular. Around 300 of these representations have been found in Vesuvian cities, according to the Pompeii researchers, and they “often refer to the sacred sphere as well as the sphere of hospitality.”

“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,” said Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director general of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii. “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?”

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