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.
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.
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.
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: 543-549. doi:10.1007/s00334-013-0407-1 (An open access version of this paper can be found here.)