Roman “refrigerator” found in Bulgaria

Excavations of the Roman legionary camp in Novae, northern Bulgaria, have revealed the ancient equivalent of a refrigerator: a chamber made of large, flat ceramic slabs to keep perishable items cold. It was found beneath the floor of a room in the military barracks and still contains fragments of cooked animal bones. It is rare to find a built-in cooler still intact inside a structure because they were frequently broken in the reconstruction of buildings.

Novae was founded in 45 A.D. as a castrum (military camp) guarding the strategically important border of Moesia Inferior at the southernmost bend of the Lower Danube. The first iteration was a timber-and-earth fort built by the Legio VIII Augusta. They were replaced in 69 A.D. by the Legio I Italica which had been transferred there from Gaul to fortify the border against Dacian incursions. They expanded the fort and built permanent stone barracks, a military hospital and baths. Legio I remained there for almost four centuries until it was ousted by invading Huns in 441 A.D.

The cooler was unearthed in a room in the headquarters building (principia) of the Legio I Italica. In addition to the fragments of baked bone inside the container, archaeologists discovered pieces of a ceramic bowl and charcoal which may have been used as a censer to deter pests from invading the storage.

Other finds made in this year’s dig season include ceramic and lead conduits supplying water to the baths and a system of channels to drain water from them. Lead pipes in situ are unusual because they were often melted down to reuse the valuable lead. Two altars were also notable finds: one dedicated to the Mithraic deity Sol Invictus by the legion’s actuarius (in charge of payroll and provisioning); the other dedicated to the Capitoline Triad by the signifer, the standard bearer, of Legio I. Very few inscriptions of any kind, let alone dedicated altars, by men who held these important positions have been found.

Archaeologists discovered remains from the early wooden fort of Legio VIII Augusta: a series of walls, a smattering of remains from the barracks and one detached dwelling that contains querns, weaving weights, fishing weights, bone pits, pottery fragments and coins. Very few remains of that first fort have been unearthed in the more than six decades of excavations at Novae, so this agglomeration is of great archaeological import.