Monthly Archives: June 2014

How do we know about Roman food? – waterlogged plant remains

Archaeologists learn about Roman food from a range of sources; mosaics, wall paintings, artefacts, written evidence, and bioarchaeological remains of foodstuffs. Plant foods, such as fruits, spices, cereal grains and pulses, are found at archaeological sites due to four types of preservation. These are charring, desiccation, calcium-phosphate mineralisation and waterlogging (see the glossary).

Waterlogged plant remains have provided archaeologists with some of the best evidence for plant foods in the north-western Roman Empire, showing that a wide range of new herbs, fruits and nuts were adopted. When plant remains are discarded into permanently wet places, they do not decay as they would on the ground surface or in compost bins. Waterlogged conditions are referred to as anaerobic, meaning there is no oxygen present. Bacteria, which would usually decay plant tissue, need oxygen to survive – without this, a wide range of plant remains can survive for thousands of years. These include ‘delicate’ remains such as celery seeds, box leaves, straw and bracken. Plant remains like this very rarely survive by charring (carbonisation).

Waterlogged conditions are found at 2 types of archaeological sites:

  1. Places which have been constantly waterlogged, forever. This happens due to a combination of settlements being built next to water, such as Roman London and York, frequent rainfall (Britain!), and the disposal of organic rubbish (stable flooring, food waste) faster than it can decay. This creates waterlogged conditions on the ground surface, and a wide range of organic materials are preserved, including floor timbers, leather shoes, and plant foods. A great example is the waterlogged conditions in the Walbrook Valley, London, where recent excavations by MoLA have uncovered timber drains.
  2.  The bottoms of many wells, which were dug to provide water in Roman times, have remained below the water table for the last two millennia. This means Roman settlements on dry land, such as Silchester, can still produce waterlogged plant remains from wells. The cramped, dark and wet conditions of wells are tricky to excavate, but a range of evidence for food waste, fodder material and settlement vegetation can be recovered.

A Roman well under excavation at Silchester (the Roman timber lining can be made out underneath the diggers feet – the timber shoring is modern!)

Samples of sediment taken from wells are processed using a flotation tank to extract the plant remains. Plant remains usually float on the surface of water, and can be collected in a sieve with a mesh size of 0.25mm.

Flotation of samples at the Silchester 'Town Life' Project

Flotation of samples at the Silchester ‘Town Life’ Project

The ‘waterlogged flot’ from samples is then taken back to the lab and sorted under a microscope. Seeds and other plant remains like leaves, buds, cereal chaff and fruit stones are removed, and identified by comparing them to seeds in a modern reference collection. This is  a lengthy process, but the results can tell us about the fruits and flavourings consumed by different communities who lived within the Roman Empire. We can also learn how diets change over time, and even how they varied between households!

Waterlogged plant remains, including blackberry pips

Waterlogged plant remains, including blackberry pips

For more information about waterlogged plant remains:



Eating like Romans?

A couple of weekends ago, I experimented with cooking some of the recipes from Sally Grainger’s ‘Cooking Apicius’. I cooked lamb with coriander and peaches in a cumin sauce. Both recipes were pretty easy to prepare and used ingredients that you can buy in most supermarkets. The lamb was particularly nice and would probably make a good barbecue dish (assuming the sun stays out for long enough!). The peaches were also quite nice. The fish sauce was barely discernible and added a nice salty edge to all the sweet syrup, honey and dessert wine. The strangest thing was the cumin as it was odd to taste something we ordinarily associate with savoury food in a dessert. I think if I were to cook the peaches again, I would put in just the tiniest bit of cumin, so that it is not too overwhelming.

Tucking into our Roman dinner - can you spot the non-Roman elements of our dinner?

Tucking into our Roman dinner – can you spot the non-Roman elements of our dinner?

For those who would like to try these recipes, here they are in slightly amended form:

Roast lamb with coriander (Apicius 8.6.8)

40 g ground coriander

freshly ground black pepper and sea salt

olive oil

4 double-loin lamb steaks or lamb chops

Add the black pepper and sea salt to the ground coriander. Brush the lamb with olive oil and press it into the ground coriander mixture. Grill or roast in the oven.

If you want you can grind the coriander yourself from seed for a texture that is more like breadcrumbs.

Lamb with coriander.

Lamb with coriander.

Peaches in a cumin sauce (Apicius 4.2.34)

500 g firm peaches

300 ml sweet white wine

50 ml dessert wine

2 tbsp grape or date syrup

2 tbsp honey

A pinch of cumin

1 tsp cornflour

1 tsp fish sauce

Cut the peaches into quarters. Simmer the wines, grape syrup and honey. Poach the peaches until just cooked. Remove them and put in a bowl. Add the cumin to the pan. Reduce the cooking liquor by one-third. Thicken with the cornflour. Flavour with the fish sauce to taste.

If you can’t find grape or date syrup in the shop, you could try reducing grape juice down to a syrup instead.

Peaches in cumin sauce.

Peaches in cumin sauce.




Food For Thought at Horatio’s Garden

Sunday saw the first event of our ‘Food for Thought’ project. The event was held at Horatio’s Garden in the Duke of Cornwall Spinal Treatment Centre of Salisbury District Hospital ( ), and was focussed around a ‘Roman lunch’ for staff, patients and their families – c. 75 of whom came. The wonderful Horatio’s Garden team put on a delicious spread of boiled eggs, olives, ham and wild boar sausages with spelt and honey cakes for dessert and pomegranate juice to drink.

Dan and Miranda help to prepare the lunch

Dan and Miranda help to prepare the lunch

Olivia with a tasty selection of Roman cakes.

Olivia with a tasty selection of Roman cakes.

Alongside the food we had a set of posters created by members of the ‘Food for Thought’ team, which introduced ways of learning about food in the Roman world, discussed the evidence for food in Roman Britain and Italy and posed questions about food and identity. Erica and Lisa also put together a display of seeds and shells with a microscope to help people view the smaller objects – lots of people were particularly intrigued by how well the eggshells were preserved!

Erica and Lisa setting up their environmental archaeology display.

Erica and Lisa setting up their environmental archaeology display.

Dan had a portable display of pottery from Roman Britain, which he used to introduce people to the basics of pottery analysis and how it relates to food. We also gave out handouts with Roman recipes for people to try at home and we dotted around the garden some quiz sheets about food in the Roman world.

Dan with his pottery sherds.

Dan with his pottery sherds.

As well as the archaeology, it was a pleasure to work again with artist Miranda Creswell, who put on a display of some of her recent pieces – chopping boards (including an old one of mine!) on which Miranda has drawn landscapes. These provided a nice link between food preparation and the land and were hidden in various parts of the garden.

One of Miranda's chopping boards.

One of Miranda’s chopping boards.

We couldn’t have had a better start to the project – lovely weather, tasty food, good company and interesting conversations. Thank you, Horatio’s Garden!

The project team.

The project team.