Author Archives: lisalodwick

Millet in the Roman Diet

“If you want to waste your time, scatter millet and pick it up again” (moram si quaeres, sparge miliu[m] et collige)

A proverb scratched on a column in the peristyle of the House of M. Holconius Rufus (VIII.4.4) at Pompeii (Jashemski et al. 2002, 137).

Looking for the evidence of millet, a generic term for a large group of small seeded-grasses, that includes both Setaria italia (L.) P. Beauv. and Panicum miliaceum L., used during the Roman empire, circa 753 BC–610 AD, presents a number of challenges. Millets are only mentioned a handful of times in the ancient surviving texts, there are only a few well-documented preserved archaeological finds of millet and limited scientific evidence, including archaeobotanical (ancient preserved plant remains) and isotopic evidence (based upon plants using either C3 and C4 photosynthesis). All these lines of evidence are problematic in terms of their representativeness but together they offer a more complete glimpse into the growing understanding of millet and its use and importance in the Roman world.

In other plant taxa it may be problematic to attribute specific botanical species to ancient Greek and Latin names as it is difficult to trace the ancient version of the plant through to modern times. However, this is not the case with Panicum miliaceum or common millet as it has been recovered dating back to the end of the third millennium BC on European archaeological sites (Boivin et al. 2012; Dalby 2003, p. 99; Valamoti 2013) and Setaria italica (L.) P. Beauv or commonly known as Italian millet has been cultivated since the Bronze Age circa 2000 BC in Europe (Jashemski et al. 2002, p. 162). The wild progenitor or ancestor of foxtail millet, Setaria viridis (L.) P. Beauv, is well identified and shows clear morphological affinities with, and can interbreed with domesticated Setaria italica (L.) P. Beauv. (De Wet et al. 1979, p. 53; Zohary et al. 2012, p. 71).

Wall painting of common millet (left) and Italian millet (right) being eaten by two quails (NMinv. No. 8750) from Pompeii, Italy (photo by S. Jashemski p. 137 in Natural History of Pompeii). NB: It is possible to distinguish the two plant species and their similarity to modern species of common millet and Italian millet

Fig 1: Wall painting of common millet (left) and Italian millet (right) being eaten by two quails (NMinv. No. 8750) from Pompeii, Italy (photo by S. Jashemski p. 137 in Natural History of Pompeii). NB: It is possible to distinguish the two plant species and their similarity to modern species of common millet and Italian millet

Millet is most commonly known in ancient times as being used for fodder to feed livestock and other domesticated animals including birds (see Figure 1). However, millet was also eaten by humans. Millet can be boiled and made into a porridge or ground into a flour and made into a heavy flat bread. The Romans probably did both with it. From the writing of the ancient Greek physician and author Philotimus, we know that one way of preparing millet involved being ‘pounded when raw, ground finely and, after some water has been poured on, it is pounded once again, strained, boiled’ (Oribasius I.15.2).

Setaria italica (L.) Beauv. in autumn

Setaria italica (L.) Beauv. in autumn

Based upon the ancient texts it appears that millet was not the Romans’ favourite or first choice of flour for making bread with but it also wasn’t discarded by the Romans. For example, the presence of millet within the majority of properties with Insula VI.I and other elite houses within the city of Pompeii suggests that millet may have been consumed by the wealthy Roman owners and their servants and slaves. We now know that millets are rich in carbohydrates but poorer in digestible proteins than other cereals making it an excellent appetite satisfier to fend off hunger (Spurr 1986). Thus, common and Italian millet could have been used by the Romans in place of other cereal grains to make and/or bulk up breads and porridges, particularly in times of food shortages or crop failures in an to attempt to satisfy a starving stomach. Practically, millet filled a very useful place in the Roman diet. Millet was cheap to purchase and easy to grown alongside both summer and winter crops. Millet could have helped to hedge against famine in terms of its ability to grow in a wide range of less than ideal agricultural environments. This would have been a very important trait in an unpredictable agrarian world that was quickly exhausting its agricultural farmland (Fraser and Rimas 2010). As the ancient author Strabo (5.1.12) advised, ‘millet is the greatest preventive of famine, since it withstands every unfavourable weather, and can never fail, even though there be scarcity of every other grain’.

Traditional Roman foods were considered ones that the small farmer could grow cheaply on their small plots of land to sustain their families which included millets, pulses and vegetables. Millets were grown in Europe since the Bronze Age and possessed a hardy nature, capable of growing when and where other crops failed. These intrinsic attributes of common and Italian millet’s nature tie-in with traditional Roman values, connecting Romans with their perceived past as a conservative, hardy agrarian people living off the land. Based upon limited ritual evidence, common and Italian millet were likely traditional Roman foods that continued to be offered to the gods. Hence, common and Italian millet appear to fit into the model of the conflicted Roman psyche of traditional agrarian values and the reality of expanding new frontiers and increasing influx of foreign foods and ideas within the empire.

Thus, the evidence for millet reveals that millet was part of the Roman dietary assemblage, to varying degrees, throughout the Roman empire. Based upon the limited evidence to date it looks like millet consumption within Roman society was a more complex issue than the ancient sources alone would lead one to believe and millet consumption was closely tied to Roman social, economic and cultural values (Killgrove and Tykot 2013, p. 36). As more data is collected it is suspected that millets’ reputation and usefulness in the ancient world will become clearer and millets will move beyond being regarded simply as animal fodder.

 Charlene Murphy, UCL


Boivin N, Fuller D, Crowther A (2012) Old World globalization and the Columbian exchange: comparison and contrast. World Archaeol 44(3):452–469

Dalby A (2003) Food in the ancient world, from A to Z. Routledge, London

De Wet JMJ, Oestry-Stidd LL, Cubero JI (1979) Origins and evolution of foxtail millets (Setaria italica). J Agric Tradit Bot Appl 26(1):53–64

Fraser EDG, Rimas A (2010) Empires of food: feast, famine, and the rise and fall of civilizations. Free Press, New York

Jashemski, WF (2002) The Vesuvian sites before A.D 79: the archaeological, literary, and epigraphical evidence. In: Jashemski WF, Meyer FG (ed.) The natural history of Pompeii. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 6–28, chap. 2

Keenleyside, A, Schwarcz, H, Stirling L, Lazreg, NB (2009) Stable isotopic evidence for diet in a Roman and Late Roman population from Leptiminus, Tunisia. J Archaeol Sci 36:51–63

Killgrove K, Tykot RH (2013) Food for Rome: a stable isotope investigation of diet in the imperial period (1st–3rd centuries AD). J Anthropol Archaeol 32:28–38

Murphy, C (2015) Finding Millet in the Roman world. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences. DOI 10.1007/s12520-015-0237-4.

Murphy, C, Thompson, G and Fuller, DQ (2013) Rubbish, Refuse and the Romans, the Archaeobotanical Assemblage of Insula VI.I, Pompeii. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, 22 (5), 409-419. doi:10.1007/s00334-012-0385-8

Murphy, C (2011) Pompeii, A Changing City, the Archaeobotanical Analysis of Insula VI.I. Unpublished PhD thesis, Institute of Archaeology, UCL.

Spurr MS (1986) Arable cultivation in Roman Italy c. 200 BC–c. AD 100. Journal of Roman studies, monograph no. 3. Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, London

Valamoti SM (2013) Millet, the late comer: on the tracks of Panicum miliaceum in prehistoric Greece. Archaeol Anthropol Sci. doi:10.1007/s12520-013-0152-5

Zohary D, Hopf M, Weiss E (2012) Domestication of plants in the Old World: the origin and spread of cultivated plants in west Asia, Europe and the Nile Valley, 4th edn. Oxford University Press, Oxford

Ancient Sources

Oribasius (1997) Dieting for an emperor: a translation of books 1 and 4 of Oribasius’ Medical compilations. Brill, Leiden

Strabo (1924) In: Jones HL (ed) The Geography of Strabo. Harvard University Press, Cambridge

The place of plants in pre-Islamic Saharan trade: cultivation and consumption of plant foods by the Garamantes

The Garamantes, a tribal group who occupied Fazzan, southern Libya from c900BC to  AD500, held a strategically important position within a complex trade network linking sub-Saharan and east Africa with the Mediterranean and Nile valley.  Through contact with diverse cultural groups they evolved agricultural, material, burial and building traditions which reflect both their desert origins and their trading links. Plant remains and artefacts associated with food and consumption recovered during the Fazzan Project , particularly excavations at the ancient capital of Garama (Old Garma), led by David Mattingly of Leicester University, indicate that this ‘fusion’ culture can also be seen in the agricultue and diet of the population.

Aerial view of excavations at Garma showing the final Garamantian phases . (Copyright Toby Savage)

Settled agricultural communities emerged in the first half of the 1st millennium BC, with a material culture evolved locally from the preceding late pastoral Neolithic period. The crops cultivated were more Mediterranean in character: emmer wheat, barley, and a small amount of bread type wheat, as well as the fruits grapes and figs. Dates, which are more suited to the desert oasis environment, were also cultivated, but may have been introduced to the region somewhat earlier (dates have been found in late pastoral Neolithic graves). Crops were probably grown in small garden plots, likely to have been regularly heaped with manure, perhaps with shade provided by the date palms, and irrigated by water, possible drawn from wells.

Towards the end of the first millennium cultural and archaeobotanical evidence indicates a new wave of influences, contemporary with the emergence of complex trading societies both north and south of the Sahara (Greek and Phoenician settlements, the beginnings of the Kingdom of Ghana, and city state of Djenné-Djenno, and the Kushite/Meroitic Kingdoms). The introduction of a new irrigation technique, foggara, originating from Persia and introduced via the Egyptian Oases, must have revolutionised arable production. Foggara technology enabled an increase in the speed water was taken to the fields and the area of land irrigated, as well as enabling year round cultivation and the introduction of two significant summer crops from sub-Saharan Africa: sorghum and pearl millet. Sorghum arrived in Nubia (southern Egypt/northern Sudan) at a similar time but appears to have been a different type to that found in Garamantian Fazzan, and which eventually evolved into the durra type grown both in Nubia and Fazzan today. Slaves may have been used to construct and maintain the new irrigation system and it is possible that they brought crops and associated artefacts with them. New pottery types included flat doka, ceramic platters which are thought to be associated with making flat, pancake type bread, and in Sudan are assumed to be associated with sorghum. The doka disappear from the site of Garama in the Islamic period when bread ovens started to appear, suggesting a change in bread technology associated perhaps with new social influences. Quern stones were flat, saddle quern types, and are found on both settlement sites and within burials, suggesting a particular significance. Other cultural evidence for sub-Saharan contacts include a lip plug found in the grave of a young woman. From the Mediterranean region Punic beads and Punic/Hellenistic amphora have been found on settlement sites, indicating the import of consumable goods. Graves were marked by upright stone stele and offering tables, which may have contained food.


Agriculture in Fazzan: adding manure to garden plots (top) and irrigating winter cereals (bottom). Copyright Ruth Pelling.

SEM images of Pennisetum glaucum (pearl millet) (left) and Sorghum bicolour (sorghum) (right) from the site of Tinda B. Copyright Ruth Pelling.

SEM images of Pennisetum glaucum (pearl millet) (bottom) and Sorghum bicolour (sorghum) (top) from the site of Tinda B. Copyright Ruth Pelling.


The 1st and 2nd centuries AD represent the high point of Garamantian society, coinciding with the maximum extent and wealth of the Roman Empire as well as the flourishing of sub-Saharan kingdoms. It is likely that the Garamantes grew wealthy due to their access to water and strategic geographical position at the centre of a complex trading network which took gold, salt, slaves and wild animals (and later cotton and rice) to the north, and consumable goods like oil and wine as well as ceramics, glassware and worked jewellery, to Fazzan, and maybe beyond. In this period large quantities of imported vessels appear in both grave assemblages and on settlement sites: amphorae, glassware, sigilata, oil lamps and more utilitarian ceramic coarse-wares.  Rotary querns appear for the first time, initially imported basaltic lava examples, soon replaced by locally produced sandstone versions. Deep mortars also emerge, better suited to pounding millets and other small seeds, as well as non-food items. New food crops which appear include imported fruits such as pomegranate, almond and cucumber or melon (the seeds are difficult to distinguish if preservation is poor). A new wheat type, durum wheat, appears which is the variety associated with pasta and couscous. Fish bones of Mediterranean origin have even been recovered, perhaps imported with garum fish paste. Camel also appears at this time, while large deposits of seeds of wild, thorny shrubs only usually consumed by camels, suggest some tethering or stabling of the animals within the settlement. Ceramic fine-wares were mostly recovered from grave assemblages, often accompanied by quern stones (rotary and saddle querns), glass, amphorae, and oil lamps, perhaps related to the funerary rite. Stele and offering tables continue to mark the graves. In contrast the ceramics from within the settlement sites tend to be of more utilitarian imported coarse-ware as well as locally produced pots. New types of coarse-ware include casseroles and saucepans with lids. It is tempting to suggest a link with the introduction of durum wheat and perhaps a development of more sauce based couscous type dishes.

Towards the end of the Garamantian period the population and the wealth of imported goods declined. The range of exotic imported fruits dwindled and sorghum disappears from the archaeobotanical record. Interestingly cotton, a crop first domesticated in the Indian sub-continent, but also possibly domesticated in sub-Saharan Africa, appears in the archaeobotanical record during the later phases of the Roman Empire, perhaps to fill demand for cotton cloth at a time when the decline in global trade networks reduced the availability of imported Indian cloth. The disappearance of sorghum could be related to the reduction in sorghum growing population, particularly if it was associated with sub-Saharan slaves. When sorghum was reintroduced in the post-medieval period it was the durra type, which may have evolved in Nubia, and which is today known by its variety name ‘durra’, suggesting both name and crop were late introductions. Unlike sub-Saharan Africa, sorghum is not today cultivated as a bread grain or beer, but is more commonly use as animal feed, or a snack food (as pop-corn) or occasionally mixed with barley flour to produce bazeen, a flour, salt and water paste, eaten with meat and gravy. This is typical of a late adoption of a crop or food type into a pre-existing culinary tradition, rather that its introduction as part of a new cuisine or with a migrating population.

Ruth Pelling, Historic England

This discussion draws on a range of specialist and archaeological evidence generated by the project team, all of which is published in a series of volumes:


Mattingly, D. J., Daniels, C. M., Dore, J. N., Edwards, D. and Hawthorne, J. 2003. The Archaeology of Fazzān. Volume 1, Synthesis. The Society for Libyan Studies/Department of Antiquities, London.

Mattingly, D. J., Daniels, C. M., Dore, J. N., Edwards, D. and Hawthorne, J. 2007. The Archaeology of Fazzān. Volume 2, Gazetteer, Pottery and Other Finds. The Society for Libyan Studies/Department of Antiquities, London.

Mattingly, D. J., Daniels, C. M., Dore, J. N., Edwards, D. and Hawthorne, J. 2010. The Archaeology of Fazzān. Volume 3, Excavations of C.M. Daniels. The Society for Libyan Studies/Department of Antiquities, London.

Mattingly, D. J., Daniels, C. M., Dore, J. N., Edwards, D. and Hawthorne, J. 2014. The Archaeology of Fazzān. Volume 4, Survey and Excavations at Old Jarma (Ancient Garama) carried out by C. M. Daniels (1962–69) and the Fazzān Project (1997–2001). The Society for Libyan Studies/Department of Antiquities, London.

Wasting Perfume on Lentils

Consumption of perfume was widespread in Roman society. However, the use of aromatics was not just restricted to bodily application and other external processes, but they also made their way into Roman dietary habits. One would, however, hardly consider pouring Brut – or the latest offering from Chanel – on to morning porridge. Adding essential oils into one’s evening meal would probably prompt a look of concern from even the most open-minded foodie. What, then, were Roman perfumes and why might they be suited to adding to food? Before we begin to examine different dishes to which the Romans may have added perfume, it is important to discuss the Roman concept of perfume and compare it to our modern reality.

Modern perfume substrates (the vehicle for the scent) are commonly alcohols which evaporate after application on the skin, clothing or when dispensed. Distillation, at least for use in chemistry, was not invented until the Islamic period and later spread to the medieval west. The Romans, however, following Greek precedent used oils as perfume substrates. Any fine, light and delicately scented oil was deemed particularly useful for this purpose.


Based upon the perfume recipes in Pliny’s Natural History and the On Odours by Theophrastus we can see that some particularly well regarded oils were extracted from the ben or behen nut, castor and a form of high quality oil called omphacium, which was pressed from immature green olives and, less certainly, grapes (Amouretti 1986; Brun 2000). It is also clear that perfumes could be made using animal fat substrates. Unfortunately, the archaeological evidence for all of these processes has, to date, eluded us.

Roman compound perfumes (unguenta) were rather greasy compared to modern perfumes and thus have rather more in common with ointments, salves and, using a term more at home in the Victorian period, unguents. An understanding of their nature makes their use in food perhaps less shocking, but what flavour would they be trying to impart?

The scent profile of Roman perfumes was nearly always floral or, at least plant based. Rose (probably the damask), iris, jasmine, cypress, lily and myrtle are all commonly named ingredients in the recipes given Pliny and Theophrastus. Colourants and fixatives could also be added depending on the desired viscosity and colour of the end product. The scent was imparted by heating the oil/fat (hot enfleurage) and any additional ingredients or by leaving it to steep (cold enfleurage). In a similar manner to an infusion of tea into water, the hotter the substance the quicker this diffusion occurs.

Experimental perfume recreation, Castel et al. 2012

Experimental perfume recreation, Castel et al. 2012

In three recipes in Mark Grant’s compilation of Roman recipes, Roman Cookery (Grant 2008), there are examples of flowers being added directly to food. The references to the ancient texts are not given here but Grant’s book is fully referenced and includes suggestions for modern kitchens. One recipe is from Bassus (a 10th C compiler of earlier recipes), which details the production of a rose honey (rhodomeli) which is made by simply adding rose petals to honey. Another is a beef casserole (carnes vaccinae – from the 5th-6th centuries) to which spikenard is added – a privileged perfume ingredient according to Pliny. The dried stigmas of the crocus, saffron, were also added to chickpeas with salt (erebinthoi knakosymmigeis in Greek) in order to prepare a rather subtle yet rich dish. Saffron perfumes (unguenta), moreover, were a particular pet peeve, and a symbol of problematic luxury, in many of Cicero’s speeches. Flowers and flower extracts, then, were clearly added to food, but what about compound perfumes?

Chickpeas and saffron from modern Moroccan cooking

Chickpeas and saffron from modern Moroccan cooking

The post’s title refers to a literary topos, or commonplace, from Roman literature; the pouring of perfume (Myron/myrum – an unguent or sweet smelling oil) on to lentils. This phrase becomes a proverb not for profligacy – that perfume is wasted on lentils – but for incongruity (Pearson 1963). This proverb is rarely explained and indeed it is humorously used by Cicero to suggest that Lentulus (lenticula/lens being Latin for Lentil – a pun!) was unfit for a certain duty in the same way that perfume and lentils do not suit. It seems then, that certain specific flowers were considered more suitable for culinary use than perfumed concoctions.


Simple floral perfumes were, perhaps, more likely to make their way in to cooking but our evidence is incredibly scant. If flowers were added to food, as is suggested above, the use of simple flower infused oils in delicate dishes does not seem absurd. One is instantly reminded of the way in which we use infused oils and sugars in modern cooking and baking.

Although, a final ‘take-home’ note might be a reminder to heed the words of Strattis (in a parody of Euripides – Pearson 1963: 178): “When cooking lentils, don’t pour perfume on.”

Tom Derrick, University of Leicester

Ancient Sources:

Cicero, Letters to Atticus

Pliny, Natural History.

Theophrastus, On Odours.

Modern Sources:

Amouretti, M.C. 1986. Le pain e l’huile dans la Grèce antique. Paris: Belles Lettres.

Brun, 2000. The Production of Perfumes in Antiquity: The Cases of Delos and Paestum. American Journal of Archaeology 110: 419-472.

Grant, M. 2008. Roman Cookery – Ancient Recipes for Modern Kitchens. Revised ed. London: Serif.

Pearson, L. 1963. Perfume on Lentils. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 93: 176-184.

Pining after pine nuts

The growing popularity of pesto in recent years means pine nuts are now a common food in the UK. Pine nuts are also used in many Mediterranean dishes, such as eastern Mediterranean dolmades (stuffed vine leaves), Lebanese kibbeh  (raw meat and bulgur wheat) and Syrian kofta mabrouma (minced lamb and pine nuts) – see Laura Mason’s wonderful book Pine for many other recipes.

Nuts from any type of pine tree can be eaten, but traditionally it is the nuts from Stone or Umbrella pines (Pinus pinea L.) which are eaten in the Mediterranean. The stone pine is not a domesticated tree. So every year from October to March, pine cones are harvested from wild forests. The cones are left outside to ripen in the sun, before being beaten to remove the nuts. To cope with the huge demand, machines are now used to shake off the pine cones and to crush them to extract the nuts. Due to the huge global demands for them, many of the pine nuts sold in supermarkets come from other pines grown in China, such as the Chinese white pine.

Stone pine tree growing in Tuscany

Stone pine tree growing in Tuscany

Pine nuts were a common ingredient in the Apician recipes. Some of these are sweet dishes such as almond and semolina pudding (Apicius 2.2.10) or pine nut and honey pudding (Apicius 7.11.5). But pine nuts were also used in patinas (thick omelettes), faggots, sauces for meat and fish, and even stuffed kidneys. How about trying out this recipe for poached eggs with pine-nut sauce, over at Pass the Garum.

Finding archaeological evidence to show who was eating  nutty foods like these in the Roman period is unfortunately not straight forward. The kernels are so soft, that they rarely survive charring. However, the pine nut shell does preserve well. So well in fact, that individual nutshells and whole cones have been recovered from many sites in the Roman world. The problem is, many of these finds are not from the typical domestic context – refuse pits, hearths, dumps of broken pottery and kitchen debris, but from offering pits in temples, cremations and alongside other “ritually deposited” items in wells.

To start off with the definite food finds, charred pine nuts have been found from military forts and major towns like Colchester and London in Roman Britain. A few rural dwellers in southern Britain were also eating pine nuts, such as those living on the Isle of Thanet, the small town at Springhead (both in Kent) and at Fullerton Villa in Hampshire. Pine nutshells are found at the same range of sites in north-western Europe. Over in Italy, pine nuts have been found amongst other food refuse (fig pips, grape pips, cereal grains) at Regio VI, Insula 1, Pompeii.

Pinus pinea kernels

Turning to the ritual finds, the most obvious examples are from temples. Intact stone pine cones were found in the Temple of Isis in Pompeii, the Carrawburgh Mithraeum on Hadrians Wall and the London Mithraeum. More often, broken up and charred remains of pine cones are found, such as at the Triangular Temple in Verulamium and the Temple of Isis in Mainz. These probably came from pine cones being used as incense or offerings to the gods. Pine nuts have also been identified from cremation burials, both in northern Italy and London.

Other finds of stone pine cones are more difficult to assign as “food” or “ritual” remains, and of course we know that there was no clear separation between these categories. For instance, at a Military annex at Orton’s Pasture in Staffordshire, broken up nutshells and bracts were found in a pit, which initially looked like the left overs from a tasty pine nut snack. However, the only pits to contain pine nuts (and also dates) were in one area of the enclosure, close to where an altar was deposited. Another example is an intact pine cone that was found in a waterhole at the edge of an enclosure at a rural farmstead outside Cirencester (Claydon Pike), but with very few artefacts to indicate how the pine cone got there. In contrast, amongst some Early Roman buildings at 1 Poultry (The City, London), several pine cones were found in and around a water tank, alongside other food waste (coriander seeds, grapes pips), but also a Venus figurine. Maybe this material was from ritualistic activities in the Walbrook valley?

Pine cone

Pine cone from Claydon Pike, near Cirencester – on display in the Corinium museum!

The special significance of stone pine cones is revealed through a wealth of material culture. The most obvious example is this Roman tombstone found near a fort in Cumbria. The tombstone was for a soldier’s daughter, and shows a women reclining on a dining couch. A pine cone is in the top right hand corner, as a symbol of rebirth. Replica pine cones made from terracotta have also been found at some sites in Roman Britain, such as at Roman villas at Rapsley (Surrey) and Witcombe (Gloucestershire). Pine cones also appear as steelyard weights, and on fountains.

Kirkby Thore tombstone.  Copyright British Musem.

Kirkby Thore tombstone. Copyright British Museum.

Beyond food and ritual offerings, literary evidence gives us another use of pine nuts – as aphrodisiacs. Galen suggested that taking a combination of almonds, honey and pine nut on three consecutive evenings would have the desired effect. The demand for pine cones, for ritual offerings, food and other uses, meant that they were traded across the empire. A first century BC shipwreck off of Toulon, southern France, contained 61 pine cones. At the other end of the empire, pine cones have been found at quarry settlements in the Eastern Desert of Egypt.

Next time you have pasta and pesto, take a moment to think about how pine nuts were used in the past.


Grocock, C.W. and Grainger, S. 2006. Apicius: a Critical Edition with an Introduction and an English Translation of the Latin Recipe Text. Tonnes: Prospect.

Lodwick, L. 2015. Identifying ritual deposition of plant remains: a case study of Stone Pine cones in Roman Britain, pp. 54-69. In Brindle, T., Allen, M., Durham, E. and Smith, A. TRAC 2014: Proceedings of the Twenty-Fourth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Mason, L. 2013. Pine. London: Reaktion Books.

Mutke, S. et al. 2012. Mediterranean Stone Pine: botany and horticulture. Horticultural Review 39: 153-201.

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


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:

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

Online Resources

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.