Monthly Archives: November 2014

Grain milling in the Roman world

One of the most iconic sights in Pompeii are the bakeries with their donkey mills. These hourglass-shaped mills were one of several types in use in the Roman world to mill grain ready to make bread. The donkey mills have a solid lower stone, called a meta, which was bell-shaped. Over the top was a hollow upper stone, which was shaped like an hour glass; this was called the catillus. The catillus functioned like a hopper into which the grain would be poured for grinding. The stone used is hard and abrasive to help with the grinding, often basalt. As their name suggests, these mills were probably rotated by donkeys. In addition to these extant examples, there are also numerous depictions on tombstones and sarcaophagi. These come not only from Italy, but also from North Africa, the Aegean and Gaul, which attests to how widespread they were in the Roman world.

One of several bakeries in Pompeii where grain was milled on site using donkey mills.

One of several bakeries in Pompeii where grain was milled on site using donkey mills.

One of the objects we have selected for our exhibition comes from a different kind of mill: a rotary hand quern. These are also made from hard, abrasive stone to help grind the grain. Rotary querns are flatter than donkey mills, but also have an upper and lower stone. These kinds of mill would have ground smaller amounts of grain and would have been sufficient for a domestic household.

At the other end of the scale are watermills, which could grind grain on an industrial scale. Studies of Roman watermills have suffered in the past from the traditional view of technological stagnation in the ancient world. It was thought that slave labour and lack of interest in investment in new technologies caused a lack of water milling technology. As a consequence, for a long time, all water mills were thought to date to the early medieval period at the earliest. This idea was challenged by Orjan Wikander in the 1980s, who started to find archaeological evidence for watermills belonging to the Roman period.

There are two main types of watermill that are distinguished by the orientation of the wheel: vertical or horizontal. The vertical wheel requires a right-angle gear and turns a horizontal wheel shaft on the other end of which is a vertical cogwheel. This cogwheel drives a horizontal cogwheel and the millstones above. The horizontal wheel does not require a gearing system and is driven by water conducted either by a steep chute onto oblique paddles on the wheel or from a nozzle at the base of an arubah penstock (which functions like a tube delivering water to the wheel), or exceptionally, as a turbine.

Schematic drawing of a vertical-wheeled mill with a right-angled gear.

Schematic drawing of a vertical-wheeled mill with a right-angled gear.

Schematic drawing of a horizontal-wheeled mill with an arubah penstock.

Schematic drawing of a horizontal-wheeled mill with an arubah penstock.

In most parts of the Roman world, mills are of the vertical-wheeled type. In some cases, as at Barbegal in France, there were 16 wheels in a single installation. This multi-wheeled mills give a strong impression of the scale of grain milling that was occurring in the Roman world. They suggest that grain was being milled at a near-industrial scale and so that there was a large market for grain and bread. This market may have been related to the annona, a system of free grain (and later bread) given out to the populace – this is where the phrase ‘bread and circuses’ comes from i.e. that these were given to the people to keep them happy and peaceful.

In the Near East, the majority of the 25 known watermills seem to be of the horizontal type with an arubah penstock. The arubah penstock is usually a 6-10 m high stone tower that contains a column of water. This column of water is let out through a narrow orifice at the bottom of the tower, so the wheel is driven by a jet of water under pressure. It seems that this type was used in the Near East because it is a particularly efficient design to use when there is a limited flow of water.

Dating watermills is fraught with difficulty, so most of the Near Eastern mills I looked at in my PhD thesis were only tentatively dated to the Roman period. A case in point is the mill complex at Lejjun, which was thought for several years to date to the Roman period, but excavation subsequently revealed that it dates back only as far as the 19th-century AD Ottoman use of the area (McQuitty, A. “Watermills in Jordan: technology, typology, dating and development,” in Amr, K., Zayadine, F. and Zaghloul, M. (eds) Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan 5 (Amman: Dept of Antiquities, 1995), 745-751.). In some rare cases, the mills can be dated from literary references, for example the mills at Amida were mentioned by Ammianus Marcellinus (18.8.11) and so can be firmly dated to AD359.

For more info and a list of all possible Roman watermills in the Near East, see my book (Zena Kamash 2010 Archaeologies of Water in the Roman Near East (Gorgias Press) and http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/kamash_2006/

For a full account of grain mills and milling, in the ancient world, see LA Moritz 1958 Grain Mills and Flour in Classical Antiquity – old, but still good on donkey mills and rotary hand querns.

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Another fun day at the museum stores (19.11.2014)

This week saw us return to Corinium Museum’s stores for a second time. This time we were focused on animal bone and ‘small finds’ – ‘small finds’ is a loose term used to describe types of find that are rare on site, often metal, glass and worked bone objects. To make the best use of our time, we divided the team into two: I went hunting for animal bone, while Lisa was in charge of looking through the small finds.

I went to Northleach with Priscilla Lange, who is an animal bones expert based at the University of Oxford. Heather Dawson, from Corinium, had kindly brought out a small selection of the animal bone kept in store, so we were able to make a quick start. Priscilla found lots of useful material for the exhibition, including the remains of a suckling pig and a cache of pigs’ trotters from Cirencester. In the exhibition, we really want to show how we know about Roman food, so we also selected animal bones that show the difference between evidence for food and evidence for other practices, for example these cattle metapodials.

Cattle metapodials from St Michael's Field in Cirencester. They show a variety of treatments. Top row (l-r): cut marks for meat removal; marrow extraction; bone working; marrow extraction. The example at the bottom has  been sampled for scientific analysis.

Cattle metapodials from St Michael’s Field in Cirencester, which show a variety of treatments. Top row (l-r): cut marks for meat removal; marrow extraction; bone working; marrow extraction. The example at the bottom has been sampled for scientific analysis.

Meanwhile, Lisa spent a productive day with James Harris finding artefacts from the Corinium Museum on-site store, looking at the small finds from the excavations within Cirencester itself and from sites in the surrounding region. Here we found a range of objects from those used to produce food, to those used to eat food. This meat hook would have been used to hang cuts of meat in Cirencester, causing the holes seen in cattle scapulae (shoulder blades).

Meat hook from Cirencester.

Meat hook from Cirencester.

Me holding a cattle scapula that has been pierced by a meat hook, like the one in the picture above.

Me holding a cattle scapula that has been pierced by a meat hook, like the one in the picture above.

Meanwhile, Lisa spent a productive day with James Harris finding artefacts from the Corinium Museum on-site store, looking at the small finds from the excavations within Cirencester itself and from sites in the surrounding region. Here we found a range of objects from those used to produce food, to those used to eat food. This meat hook would have been used to hang cuts of meat in Cirencester, causing the holes seen in cattle scapulae (shoulder blades).

Some artefacts were used for food consumption, for example a lovely bronze bowl and some bone spoons. Other items may have had a more ‘special’, possibly ritual, significance beyond food, like a ceramic vessel with a snake wrapped around the handle.

A fragmentary bronze bowl from Cirencester.

A fragmentary bronze bowl from Cirencester. Finds like these are very rare.

As well as selecting objects for the exhibition, I also met up with Jak Harrison from the Churn Project (www.churnproject.org.uk). This is an excellent initiative that works with elderly, unemployed and family groups within the Cirencester area to improve quality of life and well-being. We discussed several potential collaborative events and activities that we hope to have running before and during the exhibition at Corinium Museum. This is an exciting prospect and I’m looking forward to putting these ideas into action.

Roman food today

The role of Roman style food in creating strong memories of festivals, parties and daily life was not restricted to the past. Roman Dinner Parties are relatively common events in Britain and North America today, especially if you have the luck of being friends with an archaeologist or classicist. These events often involve a bilingual Latin and English menu, some classic recipes from Apicius, and sometimes a compulsory dress code of togas. But for how long have people been recreating such feasts, and what aspects of Roman food are chosen for these modern interpretations?

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This fantastic video from British Pathe shows a Roman feast being held at the Roman Baths in Bath, south-west England, in 1961. The event is described as being held to celebrate the opening of 10 day festival of music and arts. A lot of emphasis is placed on authenticity – of the outfits, hairstyles, food chosen and the way in which the food is served (slave girls in tiny boats).  On the menu was tunny fish, roast boar, snails, asparagus, swan, nightingales tongues, Neapolitan wine and “hot Roman loaves”. The sources of evidence for these include vases in the Louvre Museum, Paris, and from the looks of the menu, the writings collated as Apicius and Suetonius’s Life of Vitellius (Dalby 2003, p 328). In short, the recreation is based on written evidence for high status feasting in Roman Italy.

IMAG373761Ez3Dfd58L._SL500_SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Many recreations are based on the popular Roman cookery books. The translation of Apicius by Barbara Flower and Elisabeth Rosenbaum was first published in 1958 and was probably widely available. Smaller pamphlets were also made, such as Maureen Locke’s A Taste of Imperial Rome, which seems to have been aimed at providing a few dishes to allow the reader to hold their own Roman dinner party. The dishes selected include stewed lamb, stewed apricots, a salad with cheese nuts and herbs, and Chicken Numidian style, with not a patina insight (like an omelette). These types of recipes would have been more acceptable to British people in the 1980s, than maybe swan and nightingales tongues.

“With the help of this book you too can enjoy these dishes, an add an authentic taste of Imperial Rome to your dinners and entertainments”. (Locke 1983, p 8)

What about more recent examples of Roman food being recreated? The Supersizes Eat…Ancient Rome, was made in 2010, and saw Sue Perkins and Giles Coren eat their way through a few days as ancient Romans. The show states that they are recreating the food of a “wealthy Roman family”, playing the parts of a Roman General and a Vestal Virgin. The recipes that are recreated in the show are based on Apicius (5:22), and they go as far as saying that eating meat and fish was only for the extremely wealthy. Anyway, key flavours highlighted are rue, black pepper, lovage and cumin. Next up, a recreation of Lucullus’s banquet, again based on written evidence, with red mullet, swollen goose livers and jellyfish patina served up. But then, later on, the show does feature garum, broad bean soup and mortaria, all commonly evidenced at archaeological settlements across the empire. But still, statements like “most Roman meals began with an egg course” does suggest an overwhelming homogeneity to Roman food. Later on, the Romano-British feast is on more archaeological grounds, with asparagus patina, roast pork with sage, leeks, peas and turnips.

 Now, Roman recipes are widely available through blogs, such as the fantastic Pass the Garum . One of the most popular recipes in the blog is for Dill Chicken, and based on one of the less extravagant recipes in Apicius entitled Raw Sauce for Boiled Chicken (Apicius 6.8.1).

Have you ever tried to cook a Roman style meal? Who was it for, and how did you choose your dishes?