Monthly Archives: September 2014

Medieval MasterChef in Istanbul

I’ve recently been lucky enough to have enjoyed a trip to Istanbul, along with colleagues from the EngLaId project ( to present a paper at a session comparing eastern cuisine and western food customs ( in the middle ages at the annual European Association of Archaeologists conference (, courtesy of the Meyerstein Fund at the University of Oxford.

The conference itself was an enormous event attracting approximately 3000 archaeologists from all over the world and taking over the buildings of Istanbul Technical University almost entirely. Sessions ranged over every archaeological topic imaginable from the Paleolithic to Heritage Management, and outside of the main business of the conference delegates were treated to a reception in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum and the gardens of Topkapi Palace and a party on a platform at Sirkeci train station.

The session at which I spoke was brilliantly organised by Joanita Vroom, Roos van Oosten (both of Leiden University) and Yona Waksman (of Laboratoire Archéométrie et Archéologie at the University of Lyon). The scope of the session was eating habits and food practices in medieval Europe using different approaches, with a particular focus on linking “cooking revolutions” to changing pottery shapes, food customs, dietary practices and house transformations. The session organisers were very reassuring to the relatively inexperienced PhD students like me, and a succession of useful papers discussing evidence for eating and drinking from a variety of medieval contexts including Islamic Iberia and post-reformation nunneries in Modena ensued. A particular highlight of the session for me was Roos van Oosten’s paper on the relationship of the shape of medieval pots from the Low Countries to other aspects of contemporary material culture, such as types of fuel used and the placement of hearths within buildings.

Medieval MasterChef Session


My own paper was essentially a version of research which I’ve previously blogged about for Food For Thought under ‘”Big Data” and Food in Roman Britain” and so I won’t go into it in detail here; except to say that I focused on changes in eating and drinking from late Roman to early medieval England in order to make the research relevant to the themes of the session. I also used my paper to showcase a new case study using the site of Yarnton in the Upper Thames Valley. In this case study my argument is that changes in domestic architecture at Yarnton from the late Roman to middle Saxon period may be linked to changes in food; specifically that the adoption of halls in the middle Saxon period may reflect a shift to more communally oriented forms of ceramic and therefore more communal eating habits.

Outside of the conference much fun was had by the EngLaId team. We got to know the streets of Istanbul, looked after a cat named Morris, consumed the local street food, including the tremendous fish sandwiches from the boats at Eminonu pier, met up with old friends and attempted (unsuccessfully) to track down the elusive Dr Joy (of Cambridge University) through the bars and back street kebab houses around Taksim Square.

Archaeology Party at Sirkeci Station



Some thoughts on the archaeology of food and memory

Food is a well-known creator of memories – we need only think, for example, of Marcel Proust’s ‘episode of the madeleine’ – or this powerful and haunting quote from the 1st edition of Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern Food:

My compilation of recipes is the joint creation of numerous Middle Easterners who, like me, are in exile, either forced or permanent, or voluntary and temporary. It is the fruit of nostalgic longing for, and delighted savouring of a food that was the constant joy of life in a world so different from the Western one.”

An early version of Claudia Roden's book on Middle Eastern food. The picture is of dolma (stuffed vegetables), which is one of my favourite foods and strongly reminds me of my childhood.

An early version of Claudia Roden’s book on Middle Eastern food. The picture is of dolma (stuffed vegetables), which is one of my favourite foods and strongly reminds me of my childhood.

In this post, then, I want to explore some of the ways that we can look at food and memory through archaeology and, in particular, at religious sites in Roman Britain.

In his work on animal bone assemblages from temple sites in Britain, Antony King has observed that people ate different animals when they were at a temple to what they ate when they were in other locations. He demonstrates that eating sheep/goat and pig is a particular feature of temple sites, but is a combination that tends not to be found on other site types in Roman Britain (note: sheep and goats are often hard to distinguish from each other, so animal bone specialists often refer to the strange-sounding ‘sheep/goat’). As well as this preference for certain meats, there is also evidence for the consumption of more exotic food stuffs at temple sites, such as oysters, whose shells have been found dumped in high numbers at Chanctonbury and Lowbury, for example. In addition to these clear preferences for particular foodstuffs, there is also evidence that these eating habits persisted over long periods of time. At Hayling Island in Hampshire, for example, there were clear preferences for the consumption of sheep/goat and pig, over ox, in feasting episodes that extended from the late Iron Age into the 2nd century. By sharing the experiences of taste, smell and touch, and possible also vision and hearing, there would have been a lot of potential for the creation of shared group memories through these feasting episodes.

The power of memory to create a sense of belonging would also have been useful in elective religions, i.e. in religions that an individual actively and explicitly chooses to join, such as Mithraism or Christianity. In Mithraism, a mystery cult that was particularly popular with Roman soldiers (see Guest Blog by Will Heisey for more info on this:, those who entered into the cult had to go through a series of scary initiations, which would have encouraged a sense of belonging and shared experience. In addition to these initiations, specific foods are important again. Whereas sheep/goat and pig were the main foods at the majority of temple sites across Britain, the Mithraea at Walbrook (London) and Carrawburgh had, instead, small groups of chicken and pig bones, which appear to represent ritual meals. At the Walbrook Mithraeum these groups of bones were incorporated into the construction layers for floors and features of the temples. The effect of this burial would have been to embed the memories of these meals further into the fabric of the cult itself. This preference for chicken and pig is very similar to that found on the continent. This suggests that eating these foods was a key and distinctive part of Mithraic ritual.

This research formed part of my work on the ‘Memoria Romana’ project, which was generously funded by the Max Planck Institute and directed by Prof. Karl Galinsky. For more information on this project, please see:


Longer versions of my research into this topic will be published soon in the following books:

‘Memory in Roman Britain’ in Millet, M, Moore, A and Revell, L (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Roman Britain, OUP: Oxford.

‘From the individual to the collective: religion and memory in Roman Britain’ in Galinsky, K (ed.) Cultural Memories in the Roman Empire, Getty Museum Press: Los Angeles.

‘Memory, materiality and religion in Roman Britain’ in Clack, T (ed.) Archaeology, Syncretism, Creolisation, OUP: Oxford.

‘Food for Thought’ at the East Oxford Community Classics Centre – 08.09.2014

This week we were delighted to present a guest workshop for the East Oxford Community Classics Centre as part of their Ancient Roman Cookery Project:

The workshop participants involved students at Cheney School in Oxford. There was lots of interest in the event, so we had 15 Year 8 Design and Technology students, who had little prior knowledge of the ancient world, and 19 GCSE Latin students. After giving the group a short talk about sources of evidence for food in the Roman world, we had a Roman pottery handling session. Each small group of 4-5 students was given a sherd of Roman pottery and asked to think about what its shape, size, colour and material might suggest about the original function of the pot. The students did really well in this task and paid a lot of attention the to details – I was particularly impressed by the groups who correctly worked out that their sherds were part of Roman grinding bowls (‘mortaria’).

Some of the pottery recording sheets from the workshop.

Some of the pottery recording sheets from the workshop.


A sherd from a Roman grinding bowl ('mortarium'). The inside is covered in small pieces of quartz to create a rough surface for grinding, just like in a mortar and pestle today.

A sherd from a Roman grinding bowl (‘mortarium’). The inside is covered in small pieces of quartz to create a rough surface for grinding, just like in a mortar and pestle today.

Following this, we then had a quiz about what foods were imported by the Romans into Britain, what foods were the most expensive in the Roman world and what foods were not part of a Roman diet. The idea that apples were not native to Britain caused quite a stir in the room, as did the fact that many things that we associate with a ‘Mediterranean diet’ (tomatoes, peppers etc) were not even known to the Romans.

There was lots of enthusiasm in the room, so I am sure the project will be a great success and I look forward to hearing how it progresses!


If you are interested in holding a class on Roman food and would like some ideas or resources, please contact us via Twitter, Facebook or email for more information: