Monthly Archives: July 2014

Pigs, stews and eating taboos: ritualized eating and drinking in Roman Mithrasim

By Will Heisey 

(To see more about more Will and his interests, look at our guest bloggers page!)

Mithraism was an ancient Roman “mystery religion” that worshipped the Indo-Iranian God Mithras and flourished across the Roman Empire over the 1st to early 4th centuries AD. Such “mystery religions” emphasized secrecy and initiation, and there are few surviving historical records of their activities. For modern archaeologists, information about this cult is therefore reliant upon their archaeological remains.

Within Mithraism, eating was of fundamental ritual importance. The subterranean temple sites (called Mithraea) were designed like a Greco-Roman dining room, where two parallel benches provided a space for the congregants to recline and face each other whilst dining. The shared meals – a regular occurrence of cult practice – are thought by some scholars to have been references to an episode in cult mythology, where Mithras, after sacrificing a “cosmic” bull, subsequently feasted upon its remains with the sun god Sol. Though, as I will demonstrate later, cattle were actually not eaten regularly in Mithraea.

The different areas of a Mithraeum as commonly defined by archaeologists. The two benches allowed cult worshippers to recline and face each other whilst dining.

The different areas of a Mithraeum as commonly defined by archaeologists. The two benches allowed cult worshippers to recline and face each other whilst dining.

The archaeological remains of these common meals, excavated at Mithraea across the Roman world, are comprised primarily of animal bones and pottery. These remains are found scattered across the interior of the temple sites and also in specially excavated pits found both within and outside Mithraea. These remains have been the focus of my recent research and have shown numerous interesting aspects of eating and drinking in Mithraea.

Interestingly enough, Mithraea of the Roman Empire shared remarkably similar dining habits in both the particular domesticated animals that were preferred as well as the specific ages at which they were slaughtered. In the northwestern provinces, chicken and pig were overwhelmingly popular at Mithraic temples, whereas cattle were dramatically underrepresented. The preference for pig in particular might have influences from similar Roman military consumption patterns, as the cult is known to have been popular within this community. The absence of cattle in Mithraea is remarkable when considering that it was otherwise a popular species in the general diet of the northwestern provinces, and it may relate to a possible “ritual taboo” upon their consumption – not unlike modern Hinduism – given the importance of the “cosmic” bull in Mithraic mythology.

Scene depicting Sol and Mithras from the Marino Mithraeum. Note the bull haunch held by Mithras. The bull was an important astrological symbol in the mythology of Mithraism.

Scene depicting Sol and Mithras from the Marino Mithraeum. Note the bull haunch held by Mithras. The bull was an important astrological symbol in the mythology of Mithraism.

The slaughter ages of certain species, inferred from studying certain diagnostic bones, also share similarities across a variety of Mithraea. While chickens where usually of adult ages when they were slaughtered for Mithraic feasts, pigs were almost always juvenile ages. These similarities could reflect unknown culinary or religious preferences (possibly prearranged) that were shared across Mithraea.

Substantial assemblages of pottery vessels have also been excavated from many Mithraea. Pottery vessels could have been used for a variety of cooking, storage, or dining roles, and are therefore more difficult to interpret than animal bones, but they can indicate certain broad characteristics of Mithraic dining behavior. Across many Mithraea, bowls and dishes with high rims were favoured above more flat vessels such as plates. This might indicate that certain types of meals were preferred in Mithraic banquets, namely, semi-solid dishes like stews. Preparation and storage vessels, such as amphorae (storage and transport vessels) and mortaria (grinding bowls), were also commonly found at Mithraea and can indicate that cooking and meal preparation also took place within the temples or their enclosures.

Drinking vessels, which could have been used for wine, beer, or water, were a popular feature of many Mithraea. This popularity can imply that drinking had an important role to play in Mithraic ritual activities, such as in libations or in the sharing of vessels and their contents between congregants during the all-important communal meals.

A beaker (a type of drinking vessel) recovered from the Mithraeum of Martigny, with a dedicatory inscription in Greek.

A beaker (a type of drinking vessel) recovered from the Mithraeum of Martigny, with a dedicatory inscription in Greek.

Overall, dining was a fundamental aspect of the religious experience in the cult of Mithras. The presence of specific culinary preferences, shared across Mithraea of the northwestern provinces of the Roman Empire, can indicate that this cult placed an emphasis upon what specifically was to be consumed in Mithraic meals. The evidence of the pottery vessels can also further specify this consumption: stews might have been a popular menu item, and drinking was of the utmost importance.


Photo references:

1) The Mithraeum plan. Wiblé, F., 2004. Les petits objets du mithraeum de Martigny/Forum Claudii Vallensium. In: Martens, M., and De Boe, G., (eds.) 2004. Roman Mithraism: the Evidence of the Small Finds. Brussels: Museum Het Toreke, p. 137, Figure 3.


2) Scene depicting Sol and Luna. Vermaseren, M.J., 1982. Mithriaca III: The Mithraeum at Marino. Leiden: E.J. Brill. Plate VII.


3) Beaker from Martigny. Cusanelli-Bressenel, L., 2003. La céramique du Mithraeum de Martigny. Lausanne: Université de Lausanne, p. 74, Plate 7.

“Big Data” and Food in Roman Britain

I’m currently involved in a project (known as the EngLaID Project which is investigating the long-term history of the English Landscape and English Identity covering the period from 1500BC – when the landscape was arguably first settled in a permanent way, to Doomsday Book c. AD1086. The project aims to use digital data created by English archaeologists, including data from Historic Environment Records (HERs), the Portable Antiquities Scheme ( ) and the National Mapping Project among other sources. My brief within this project is to investigate ceramics and food (to be submitted as a DPhil (PhD) thesis), hence my involvement with an outreach project about Roman food. I thought I’d use this opportunity to introduce my project and what I hope to be able to say about Roman food in England when it’s finished.

Although historically food has been a fairly marginal topic within Roman archaeology this situation has begun to change rapidly in recent decades, with more and more work focusing on food and the (fairly obvious) sources of evidence for it in the archaeological record. Much of this work, however, is focused on single find specialisms, such as pottery, animal bone, or charred plant remains; or on single scientific techniques such as the extraction of lipids (plant and animal fats) from Roman pottery. This is not to say that this kind of work is not important, it is very important and in fact is fundamental to my project, however, attempts to synthesize the results of these studies into a broader picture of what people in Roman Britain were eating and drinking have been rare. The exception which proves the rule here is Eating and Drinking in Roman Britain by Hilary Cool (2006), which is a thoroughly good read and recommended to anyone with an interest in Roman food.

This developing interest on the part of archaeologists in Roman food in Britain and the artefacts and ecofacts that provide the evidence for it has coincided, probably not accidently, with an explosion of data created through the implementation of protection for archaeological sites through the English planning system (PPG16). PPG16 was introduced in 1992 and stipulates that archaeological sites must be excavated before they are destroyed by development. In fact Cool is explicit in stating that her research has been stimulated by the results of these excavations, suggesting that the informed use of finds reports from such excavations can give us a much more refined view of food and drink in Roman Britain and drawing out subtle differences between the diets of, for example, the rural poor in the east midlands and the upper Thames Valley, or officers and men in Roman forts.

And this is the point at which my research comes in. What my project aims to do essentially is to apply the “Big Data” techniques developed in the context of the EngLaId project to investigate the different patterns of eating and drinking suggested by Cool. To that end I’ve gathered digital data generated during the course of developer funded excavation for two case studies, one on the Upper Thames Valley (see map) and one on the route of High Speed 1 (HS1) in Kent, with a third projected case study planned for East Anglia. The kind of data that I’ve been collecting includes contextual information (where artefacts were found and on what kind of site), pottery catalogues, animal bone and plant catalogues and information on other kinds of food related tools such as quernstones and knives. The data is stored in a filemaker database and mapped digitally using QGIS. There are huge problems with using this kind of data, most notably the fact that much of it was created in an era before the routine use of databases in British archaeology, meaning that there is lack of standardization in the way that data is recorded and consequently attempts to query the database tend to result in less than meaningful results. It is probably fair to say that cracking this problem of data standardization is the problem of my project, but if I can crack it then the result will hopefully be an even more nuanced understanding of eating and drinking in Roman Britain (among other periods), encompassing both national and regional patterns of consumption and production. I hope that I’ll be able to post some more concrete results in future blogs.

Fig. 1 Location of case studies 2


Fig. 1 Location of Case Studies


Grow your own? Vineyards in Roman Britain

Grapes and wine were key parts of the Roman Mediterranean diet. We also know that they were imported to areas further afield such as Roman Britain, through the study of plant remains and ceramics. But is there any evidence that the imported goods were supplemented with local produce to quench the thirst of Romano-British people?

Grapes (Vitis vinifera L.) do not grow natively in Britain, although a single charred grape has been found from a Neolithic causewayed enclosure at Hambledon Hill (Jones and Legge 1987). Grape pips have been found in 61 ‘records’ (phases of individual archaeological sites) in Britain (Van der Veen et al. 2008). The majority of these records are from major towns such as London, York and Silchester, as well as military and rural sites. But individual grape pips only show that grapes were being eaten – they don’t tell us where they were produced.

The presence of Roman vineyards in Britain has long been suspected, based on a third century AD classical text (Probus 18.8). In AD 280, the Emperor Probus repealed a previous law of Domitian, allowing grapes to be grown in Britain, Gaul and Iberia. Legend has it that the first vineyards were constructed at the Vyne country house  near Basingstoke, Hampshire. A probable eighteenth century bust of Probus was installed in the house (Witcher 2013). The house is just a few miles from the Roman civitas capital Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester), where grape pips have been recovered from excavations in Insula IX. Orchards of newly introduced fruits such as apple, cherry and plum were probably growing around Silchester, but no archaeological evidence has yet been found of vineyards.

Terracotta bust of the Emperor Probus at the Vyne

Terracotta bust of the Emperor Probus at the Vyne

Disclaimer at the entrance

And a disclaimer at the entrance…

However, archaeological evidence for vineyards is quite common from Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire, to the north of London. Many of these sites have been uncovered recently by developer funded excavations, and full publications are not yet available. These sites typically have evidence for flat bottomed planting trenches (pastinatio), irrigation systems, postholes  and grape pollen. It seems producing grapes and wine may have been big business in Mid Roman East Midlands!


Here’s a quick run down of some of the recent sites:

Wollaston in the Nene Valley – flat bottomed trenches and grape pollen. Brown et al 2001.

Persimmon Homes site at Grovebury Farm, Leighton Buzzard. Online news article August 2013.

Tavistock Avenue, Ampthill – evidence for parallel bedding trenches and manuring. Brown et al 2010 archive report.

North West Cambridge  – wells, irrigation system and planting beds. Online news article March 2014.



References (not open access)

Jones, G & Legge, A. 1987. The grape (Vitis vinifera L.) in the Neolithic of Britain. Antiquity 61:452-5

Renfrew, J. 2003. Archaeology and the origins of wine production. Sandler et al. Wine: A scientific exploration.

Van der Veen, M. et al. 2008. New Plant Foods in Roman Britain – Dispersal and Social Access. Environmental Archaeology 13(1): 11-36.

Witcher, R. 2013. On Rome’s ecological contribution to British flora and fauna: landscape, legacy and identity. Landscape History 34(2): 5-26.