Monthly Archives: December 2014

Late Iron Age food at Silchester

The foods that we choose to eat and avoid are strongly tied up with our identity. Yet the foods being eaten in one part of the world can change due to the movement of people, who bring their food customs with them, and/or the adoption of new foods by resident populations. A town at the edge of the Roman Empire at the end of the first century BC provides a glimpse of how and why foods changed in the past.

Spelt wheat grains

Iron Age diet in Britain was pretty dull, consisting mainly of spelt wheat and barley made into porridge or bread, some meat, and probably some collected wild plants, such as black mustard. Towards the end of the first millennium BC, transport amphorae containing wine and olive oil began to make their way to settlements in south-eastern Britain. The types of crockery used by people living in oppida (large “proto-urban” nucleated settlements) also changed, with plates and bowls becoming more common. Other distinctive food remains are also found at these sites which were not commonly used during the Iron Ae, such as oysters. Whilst around 50 new plant foods were imported to Britain after AD 43, whether any of these were adopted before the Roman invasion was not known.

Late Iron Age occupation at Insula IX ©LisaLodwick

Late Iron Age occupation at Insula IX ©LisaLodwick

Ongoing excavations in Insula IX at Silchester have revealed numerous Late Iron Age wells containing waterlogged sediments, providing the best potential in southern Britain for investigating pre-Roman dietary change. Sediments from the bottom of “Well 10421”, in the centre of the excavations were sampled, and processed with a flotation tank to extract the waterlogged plant remains. The ceramics from these well fills were dated to c. 20/10 BC – AD 10/20 – the period of the first occupation within this area of the oppidum. A few months later, when the plant remains were studied under a microscope, amongst the typical seeds of weedy plants like docks and chickweed were several very exciting items.

Two olive stone fragments were present – the first time that olives had been found in Late Iron Age Britain. Olive stones have been found only from major towns and high status sites in Roman Britain, but would have been eaten regularly in the Mediterranean. Several seeds of celery were also found. Celery is native to Britain, but only grows in coastal areas, and very rarely at inland salt springs. The seeds from Silchester (not a salt spring) are much more likely to have been imported from the continent to be used as flavourings. A few coriander seeds were also found in the samples, which is definitely not native to Britain. Written evidence, such as Apicius, tells us that these flavourings were used in Roman cooking, and their addition to the Iron Age store cupboard may have provided a welcome spicing up to the staples of bread and porridge. These flavourings and olives may have only been eaten by the leaders of Silchester in feasting events.  Future study of the plant remains should tell us how widespread these new foods were at the Late Iron Age settlement.

A - Celery seed, B - coriander seed, C - dill seed, D - olive stone ©LisaLodwick

A – Celery seed, B – coriander seed, C – dill seed, D – olive stone ©LisaLodwick

We now know that the foods eaten at Late Iron Age Silchester were changing, as well as the crockery that the food was eaten off of. But does this get us any closer to understanding the identity of the residents of the oppidum? The interesting thing is that we are not yet sure who was living at Silchester, and the range of foods being eaten can fit easily into different scenarios.

One possibility is that some of the residents of Silchester were immigrants from Northern France, fleeing from political unrest (Fulford and Timby 2000, p 546). Not only does Silchester have exceptional amounts of imported material culture from the continent, but links have been drawn between the COMMIOIS whose name appears stamped on coins, and the historical figure of Commius, a king of the Beglic Atrebates in northern Gaul (Creighton 2006). These political refugees could have carried some of their foods with them across the channel. Celery and coriander have been found from several sites in northern Gaul in this period, such as Damary in the Aisne valley (Bakels 1999). Excavations at Nemetecum, the capital of the Atrebates tribe in Northern France, have produced several similar foods to those found at Late Iron Age Silchester including coriander seeds, hazelnut shell, hulled barley and spelt wheat (Derreumaux and Lepetz 2008).

The second option is that the residents of Late Iron Age Silchester mostly moved to the site from the local region of central-southern Britain. Faced with the need to forge a new group identity, they made use of cross-channel contacts and obtained new ingredients, alongside new types of pottery, wine and olive oil. The flavourings which they managed to get hold of were those also being adopted in Northern France (celery and coriander) – these might have been the most commonly available, the easiest to transport (as dried seeds), or those which were easiest to combine with the Iron Age cuisine of stews and porridge.

The third option is of course somewhere in between – some occupants of Silchester may have travelled back and forth to north-western Europe or even Italy itself, where they may have acquired a taste for, and access to, new flavourings, whilst other residents of Silchester were locals, who adopted these new foods to emulate the lifestyles of their leaders.

Trying to interpret what the presence of ‘new” or “luxury” foods mean is tricky. Once analysis of the Late Iron Age settlement, objects, animal bones, fish bones and plant remains from the Silchester ‘Town Life Project’ is complete, it will be possible to explore more fully what the diet and lifestyle of the residents were, and we may be able to better evaluate whether these people were locals adopting foreign luxuries, or immigrants trying to remind themselves of home. Who ever the Late Iron Age Callevans were, the use of new food flavourings was clearly an important  aspect of their lifestyles.



Excavations within the Silchester Insula IX have now come to an end after 18 years, with post-excavation work now concentrating on interpreting the excavated features, finds and environmental evidence. Details of how to visit the site can be found here. The Town Life Project excavations are run by the University of Reading, and the research discussed in this paper was funded by the AHRC.



Apicius, C., Grocock, W., & Grainger, S. (2006). Apicius : a critical edition with an introduction and an English translation of the Latin recipe text Apicius (pp. 85–115). Totnes: Prospect.

Bakels, C. (1999). Archaeobotanical investigations in the Aisne valley, northern France, from the Neolithic up to the early Middle Ages. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, 8, 71–77.

Creighton, J. (2006). Britannia: the Creation of a Roman Province. Cambridge: Cambridge.

Derreumaux, M., Lepetz, S., With, Jacques, A., & Prilaux, G. (2008). Food supply at two successive military settlements in Arras (France): an archaeobotanical and archaeozoological approach. In Stallibrass, S. and Thomas, R. Feeding the Roman Army. The Archaeology of Production and Supply in NW Europe (pp. 52–68). Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Fulford, M., & Timby, J. (2000). Late Iron Age and Roman Silchester: Excavations on the site of the Forum Basilica, 1977, 1980-86. London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies.

Lodwick, L. (2014). Condiments before Claudius: New Plant Foods at the Late Iron Age Oppidum at Silchester, UK. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 23: 543-549doi:10.1007/s00334-013-0407-1 (An open access version of this paper can be found here.)


Roman food at the AEA Conference

Environmental archaeologists spend their time studying the remains of animals, fish, plants, insects and snails from archaeological sites. The Roman world has left behind a large amount of archaeology, from monuments to rural farmsteads, and environmental archaeologists have been working hard to study the bioarchaeological remains from these sites for decades. The Association for Environmental Archaeology is the international umbrella organisation for environmental archaeology, and they hold annual conferences where specialists get to discuss all of the latest advances in the field.

This is what a meeting of environmental archaeologists looks like!

This years meeting was held in Plymouth at the start of November, and as always, some of the research presented explored food and agriculture in the Roman world. Here’s a quick run down of the some cutting-edge Roman themed environmental archaeology research!

Husbandry and agriculture in a changing environment: bioarchaeological evidence from Althiburos (Tunisia), from the late Bronze Age to the Roman period (11th c. BC – 5th c. AD)

Silvia Valenzuela-Lamas (University of Sheffield) and Dani Lopez

This paper presented the results from excavations at Althiburos in Tunisia, the Roman city of Numidia. Compared to north-western Europe, we have little environmental-archaeological data from Northern Africa, or the the Iron Age period before the Roman Empire. Silvia talked about long term changes from the Bronze Age to the Roman period at the site, and interestingly showed that cattle decreased in importance through time.

Of bantams and broilers: two-thousand years of chicken breeding in London

Richard Thomas (University of Leicester), James Morris, Matilda Holmes

If you ever wondered about chickens in the Roman world, then your in luck, as there is currently a big interdisciplinary project investigating human-chicken interactions. Chickens were introduced to Britain on a small-scale in the Late Iron Age, but became more common in the Roman period. By undertaking lots of measurements on chicken bones from London, this research showed how chickens have changed in size over time, and what this meant for how they were used in different periods.

Synthesis and the City

James Morris (University of Central Lancashire) and Matilda Holmes

Another paper on London, this discussed the pros and cons of analysing the very large amounts of zooarchaeology (animal bone) data from London.  So many excavations have taken place in London, that differences in the types of site excavated, the type of sampling that was undertaken and how the animal bones are counted make it difficult to find and interpret patterns in how animals were used in the past. In short, this paper showed you can get over these problems, and a cool insight for Roman food is that there was very little cod eaten in Roman London.

Agriculture and rural society in Roman Britain: new perspectives from developer-funded archaeology

Martyn Allen (University of Reading)

Elsewhere in our blog we’ve mentioned the large amount of data produced by developer-funded archaeology, and how it can tell us about Roman food. This paper present an ongoing research project which is collecting together archaeological evidence from all rural settlements excavated in Roman Britain. Some of the emerging food-related findings include the presence of complex rural settlements, with multiple enclosures for different animals and crops.

Transporting food plants: a network and spatial analysis approach for the integration of archaeobotanical and landscape data of Roman Britain

Alexandra Livarda (University of Nottingham) and Hector Alex Orengeo

We’ve known for quite a while that archaeobotany (the study of plant macro remains from archaeological sites) can tell us what people ate in the Roman world, but this exciting new research also aims at using archaeobotanical data to find out how food was transported in the world. The paper combined data on Roman transport routes in Britain with the find spots of exotic plant foods, did some complicated network and spatial analysis, and then showed how trade routes changed over time.

The AEA hold biannual conferences on environmental archaeology – you can snoop on their activities and the later research in the field by checking them out on twitter @envarch and follow the latest news on their website.

Mouldy medlar

Medlars are interesting for two reasons: One, they were eaten in some parts of the Roman world, but aren’t one of the foods popularly thought of as ‘Roman’, like figs and grapes. Two, very few people know of these strange fruits today.

Medlar is a tree in the Rosaceae family (includes roses, hawthorns, blackberrys, cherries etc.), quite similar to apple and pear. It originally grew wild in Asia Minor, and it was domesticated in the Near East or southern Europe (Dalby 2003). The fruits have a distinctive appearance, and a distinctive means of preparation. They have to be ‘bletted’ or left to rot until they are brown, soft, and surprisingly tasty.

Bletted medlars (centre) and unbletted (left and right)

Medlars are mentioned in ancient texts, although it’s not clear whether they are separated from hawthorn fruits (Dalby 2003). Strabo mentions them in Geographica (16.4), where he is writing about the Nile Delta. Pliny describes three varieties of medlar (15.22), and states that the tree was not known in Italy in Cato’s time (2nd century BC). Later, Palladius described how medlar fruits were preserved in honey (Pallidus. agric. 4, 10, 22).

Although medlars were clearly known of in Roman Italy, they rarely turn up in archaeobotanical samples, even though the pips are pretty tough, and would survive well. The woody pips haven’t yet been found in Herculaneum or Pompeii (Meyer et al. 1980; Murphy et. al. 2013). In Roman Britain, they have only been found from Roman Silchester. Two stones were identified by Clement Reid from samples taken from Insula XXXIII in the south-east of the town, where the public baths were located (Reid 1905). Medlar was not identified from Roman Switzerland until far more recently. 19 seeds were found in a wooden basis full of rubbish, next to a stone buidling at the Roman vicus of Tasgetium in Eschenz (Pollman and Jacomet 2012).

Medlar has been found from more Roman sites in Gaul. Interestingly, these also include charred medlar seeds from a cremation burial in Corseul (Ruas 1990), showing that medlar was used in funerary offerings alongside apples, dates and olives. Medlar stones have also been found from the eastern Roman empire, from 4th-6th century AD deposits in the harbour at Caeseraea (Ramsay 2010).

Medlar seeds have been found from across a wide area in the Roman world, yet they are actually very rare compared to other fruits which were taken into cultivation, like apple and plums, and they are far less common than imports like fig. This probably means that medlar fruit were traded as exotic foods in the Roman world. Medlars became far more popular in the medieval period, but have again become rare. Today in Britain, medlar is most commonly encountered in jam, which is meant to be good with game! If you’re interested in growing and bletting your own medlars, have a look at this great blog post.




Baird, J.R.; Thieret, J.W. 1989. The Medlar (Mespilus germanica, Rosaceae) from antiquity to obscurity. Economic Botany. 43(3): 328–372.

Bostock, M.D., F.R.S. H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A. 1855.The Natural History. Pliny the Elder.  London: Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street.

Dalby, A. 2003. Food in the Ancient World from A to Z. London: Routledge.

Hamilton et al. 1903. Strabo. Geography. London. George Bell & Sons

Meyer, F. 1980. Carbonized Food Plants of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Villa at Torre Annunziata. Economic Botany, 34(4), 401–437.

Murphy, C., Thompson, G., & Fuller, D. 2013. Roman food refuse: urban archaeobotany in Pompeii, Regio VI, Insula 1. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, 22(5), 409–419.

Pollmann, B., & Jacomet, S. 2012. First evidence of Mespilus germanica L. (medlar) in Roman Switzerland. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, 21(1), 61–68.

Ramsay, J. 2010. Trade or trash: an examination of the archaeobotanical remains from the Byzantine harbour at Caesarea Maritima, Israel. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 39(2), 376–382.

Reid, C. 1905. The plant remains in St. John Hope, W. H. Excavations on the site of the Roman city at Silchester in 1903 and 1904. Archaeologia 59(2), 367-368.

Ruas M-P (1996) Ele ́ments pour une histoire de la fructiculture en France: donne ́es arche ́obotaniques de l’antiquite ́ au XVIIe sie`cle. In: Colardelle M (ed) L’homme et la nature au Moyen Age. Actes du Ve congre` s international d’arche ́ ologie me ́ die ́ vale (Grenoble). Errance, Paris, pp 92–105

Vaughan, J., Geissler, C., Nicholson, B., Dowle, E., & Rice, E. 2009. The New Oxford Book of Food Plants. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

‘Trimalchio’s Kitchen’ – Pop-up restaurant at Royal Holloway – 1st December 2014

On Monday, we were delighted to host a pop-up Roman recipe as part of the Christmas Market at Royal Holloway University. As well as having a display of our posters and food quiz, we had various tasty tidbits for people to try, including beef casserole, spelt bread and marinated olives. Lots of people cam by to try the dishes and talk to us about Roman food. The day was a great success, which I hope we can repeat soon.

The Festive Market in Founder's Quad, Royal Holloway

The Festive Market in Founder’s Quad, Royal Holloway

Thandi and Felix helping to set up the stall in the morning.

Thandi and Felix helping to set up the stall in the morning.

Will, Shivani and Cassandra getting ready to serve to the lunchtime crowds

Will, Shivani and Cassandra getting ready to serve to the lunchtime crowds

I would like to extend a very big thank you to the catering staff, especially Darren Coventry, at Royal Holloway who cooked such tasty food and to the undergraduate and Masters students who helped me run the stall throughout the day and did a great job drumming up business: Will, Felix, Rosie, Thandi, Leah, Cassandra, Shivani and Kallie – couldn’t have done it without you!

We’d love to hear what you thought about the food, so please let us know here or via our twitter: @NotJustDormice

If you would like to try some of the food we cooked today at home, the recipes are included below.


Beef Casserole (carnes vaccinae)

1 kg beef

1 tsp olive oil

1 leek

2 stalks celery

Half head of fennel (c. 175 g)

120 ml red wine vinegar

90 ml red wine

1 tbsp honey

2 cloves

1 tsp peppercorns

1 tbsp reduced grape juice


Preheat the oven to 170C.

Cut the beef into small pieces and brown in the olive oil.

Coarsely chop the celery, leek and fennel, then add them to the beef with the vinegar and wine.

Pour on enough water to cover the ingredients.

Put the lid on the casserole and place it in the oven for 2 hours.

Add the ground peppercorns, ground cloves, honey, salt and reduced grape juice to the stew.

Stir and leave to marinate for 6 hours.

Reheat before serving. 


Marinated olives with herbs (epityrum varium)

 100 g whole green olives

100 g whole black olives

1 tsp cumin

½ tsp fennel seeds

Bunch of fresh coriander leaves

Sprig of rue

3 mint leaves

2 tbsp olive oil

3 tbsp white wine vinegar

Grind the cumin and fennel seeds to a fine powder.

Finely chop the coriander, rue and mint.

Put all the ingredients into a bowl and stir.

(Olives can be chopped as well as whole)

Our marinated olives - can you spot the 'deliberate' mistake?

Our marinated olives – can you spot the ‘deliberate’ mistake?

Cato’s Roman Bread

500g spelt flour

350ml water

Pinch of salt

Some olive oil

Preheat the oven to 180°C.

Add the flour to the bowl along with the pinch of salt and mix.

Pour a splash of olive oil into the bowl.

Slowly add in the water, mixing as you go, until you get a dough which isn’t too floury and isn’t too sticky.

Knead the dough and form into a circular shape.  Score the top of the loaf with a knife, dividing it into 8 (this will make it look like the bread found in Pompeii).

Place on a sheet of greaseproof paper on a baking tray and bake for 45 minutes.

The bread is cooked when it sounds hollow if tapped on the base (as the bakers on Bake Off do!) – it won’t rise much because there isn’t any yeast.

We also added some dried apricots into ours, which gave a nice fruity twist.

Our (regimented) spelt bread rolls

Our (regimented) spelt bread rolls

Eating like a Roman: The 4D experience starts now!

I was sitting on the grass in one of the quadrangles at Wadham College in Oxford the other day, eating a nectarine, when I suddenly thought (as one is wont to do when they study Roman diet), “did the Romans have nectarines? What exactly are nectarines and where do they come from?” A quick Wikipedia search informed me that nectarines and peaches are in fact the same species (Prunus persica) and that due to a recessive allele, nectarines are simply fuzz-less peaches. We have archaeological evidence that demonstrates that the Roman ate peaches. There are wallpaintings from Pompeii showing peaches and waterlogged peach pits have been found at Roman sites throughout Italy (for some nice images of ancient peach pits see Sadori et al. 2009, available free online at Since the Romans had peaches it is possible that they also had nectarines, although unfortunately we can’t tell the difference from the pits alone.

Imagine a man in a toga or a woman in a stola, eating a peach. You may even imagine the man struggling to eat the peach without getting any of the juice onto his nice clean white toga. This series of blog posts is designed to paint a 4D picture of what it was like to eat like a Roman, and by 4D I mean to involve all your senses. What did the food taste like? What were the textures? The flavours? The smells? If you’re picturing a boring diet of bread, wine and lots and lots of fish sauce, then you’re in for a surprise. Recent archaeological, archaeobotanical (ancient plants) and archaeozoological (ancient animal bones) data, especially from Herculaneum, has shown us that they ate so much more.

Stay tuned for the first in this series: Going without (which I know sounds ironic, but keep faith!)


Wallpainting of peaches from Pompeii (AD62-79)