Picking up on pepper through archaeobotany

Black pepper is arguably one of the most iconic Roman flavourings. The ground spice is a common ingredient in the recipe book Apicius, even in sweet puddings, such as dulciaria – dates stuffed with pine nuts and ground pepper. Piper nigrum is a climbing vine which grows wild in the Western Ghats, a mountain range running down the west coast of India (Vaughan and Geissler 2009). Flowers grow on spikes, 4-8 cm long, and the dried fruit of each individual flower is what we call a peppercorn.

Piper nigrum growing in Goa, India

Pepper (Latin piper), is first mentioned in Greece in 400 BC, although this could refer to long pepper (Piper longum) rather than black pepper (Piper nigrum). Black pepper was imported to the Mediterranean from around 100 BC, when seafarers learnt how to use the Monsoon winds to sail to the west coast of India (Dalby 2003). The name piper appears to have been used for both long and black pepper in classical texts, but so far, only archaeobotanical evidence for black pepper has been found in the Roman world.

Classical sources tell us about the large extent of Roman trade in black pepper. Pepper was hoarded in the Horrea piperatoria – the imperially controlled pepper warehouse built by Domitian (or perhaps Vespasian). The Horrea piperatoria was situated next to the Templum Pacis in the Forum in Rome, and was destroyed by several fires. The Roman desire for pepper, discussed by Pliny (HN 12.4), meant much gold and silver coinage was sent to India in exchange for the spice (Pollard 2009). Other than food, black pepper was also an important ingredient in medicine, even used to treat impotence (Dalby 2002, p88-94).

Roman trading settlements in the Eastern desert of Egypt have produced many peppercorns, as they have been preserved by dessication – the very low levels of moisture stop the plant materials decaying. The study of the trading settlements at Quseir al-Qadim and Berenike on the Red Sea showed that the majority of peppercorns were found around the harbours themselves or in buildings linked with trade, rather than in domestic houses. Basically, black pepper was being transported through these settlements on the way to the Mediterranean, rather than originating from food waste (Van der Veen and Morales 2014).

Archaeobotanical analysis is starting to show how popular black pepper was in Roman Italy. Mineralised black peppercorns have been found from the Cardo V sewer in Herculaneum (Rowan 2014), and are likely to be recorded at more settlements as sampling for plant remains is undertaken more widely. In Roman London, probably one of the most intensively archaeobotanically sampled towns in the Roman world, black pepper has been found from just a few excavations (Cowan et al. 2009, p. 102). These include peppercorns amongst material thought to originate from a cremation, where they may have been funerary offerings, and and also from a site in Southwark, the trading and administrative area of Roman London to the south of the River Thames.

Black pepper has been found more widely in north-western Europe, but Livarda has found that half of these finds are from military sites (Livarda 2011). Two specific finds connect the military with black pepper. First, peppercorns were found in the latrine of a centurion at the fort at Oberaden, north-west Germany. Second, at the fort of Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall, a writing tablet includes pepper in a list of foodstuffs and other goods required by soldiers – the tablet can be seen online here.

Black (unripe) and white (ripe) peppercorns

So was black pepper really so rare in north-western Europe? A key problem in figuring this out is preservation. The Hoxne ‘Empress’ pepper pot was found in a hoard in Suffolk (east England) containing 15,000+ coins, pieces of jewellery and and items of tableware (read more here). Based on the coin evidence, the hoard was buried after AD 407/8, meaning around this time, someone in Suffolk was using black pepper at the dinner table! The piperatorium was used for ground pepper, which would have hardly any chance of surviving and being found by modern archaeobotanists.

So, the picture so far: large quantities of black pepper were traded from India to Roman Italy via  Egypt, consumed quite often in Roman Italy according to literary sources, but only eaten by the military and high status people in the north-western provinces. Yet the use of ground pepper, means a lot of pepper consumption would leave no archaeobotanical trace!

The Hoxne ‘Empress’ pepper pot © The Trustees of the British Museum


References

Cowan, C., Seeley, F., & Wardle, A. (2009). Roman Southwark, Settlement and Economy: Excavations in Southwark, 1973-91. Museum of London Archaeology.

Dalby, A. (2002). Dangerous Tastes: the Story of Spices. London: British Museum Press.

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

Livarda, A. (2011). Spicing up life in northwestern Europe: exotic food plant imports in the Roman and medieval world. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, 20, 143–164.

Pollard, E. A. (2009). Pliny’s Natural History and the Flavian Templum Pacis: botanical imperialism in first-century C.E. Rome. Journal of World History, 20 (3), 309–338.

Rowan, E. (2014). Roman Diet and Nutrition in the Vesuvian Region: a Study of the Bioarchaeological Remains from the Cardo V sewer at Herculaneum. Unpublished DPhil thesis, University of Oxford.

Van der Veen, M., & Morales, J. (2014). The Roman and Islamic spice trade: New archaeological evidence. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2014.09.036

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

Online Resources

http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/piper-nigrum-black-pepper

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