The Poetry of Food – poems by Dan Simpson inspired by the ‘Food for Thought’ exhibition

These three poems were written in response to the Food for Thought exhibition, generously funded by the Roman Society and supported by the Corinium Museum. I’ve been writing poems based on British Roman history and artefacts as part of my work at the Roman Museum in Canterbury (, so was delighted to be asked to do the same at the Corinium. There are lots of approaches to creating this kind of work, but I am personally interested in the small and everyday objects – they really do link us to our past, and tell us something of the people we come from.

Dan reciting his poems at the launch of the 'Food for Thought' exhibition.

Dan reciting his poems at the launch of the ‘Food for Thought’ exhibition.

Dan with the 'Food for Thought' team at the exhibition event.

Dan with the ‘Food for Thought’ team at the exhibition event.

Eternal Dog of the Hunting Cup

I was struck by the sense of movement the potter had captured in the dog depicted on the hunting cup. I looked into how dogs had co-existed with humans for millennia, being one of the fundamental species that helped our survival. I got to thinking about Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, and how he sees the love scene depicted on that object as immortalised. I wanted to do the same for the dog – and indeed, some of the lines in poem are directly adapted from the Keats’.

Dan musing about the Hunt Cups.

Dan musing about the Hunt Cups.

Ah happy, happy dog!

forever panting, and forever young

we can almost hear your barks of joy

the curl of your tail swinging back and forth

as the swift bounding of your legs

carries you eagerly over eternal ground.

You are not a nobleman’s hunting dog

all well-fed and well-bred muscle

sleek coat slipping through undergrowth

blood-scent in your sharp nose

keen-eyed and fleet-footed foe of deer and hare

nor are you some mongrel cur

snuffling through waste for scraps

a vagrant beast of burden

your ears and head drooping

your stomach growling more than your throat.

You are not a farmer’s black watchdog

eating with the family

as if you are one of them

standing silent guard in the household

alert for shadows moving in the night

nor are you a child’s over-indulged pet

fat from food fed from the table

lazily curling up next to your mistress

legs kicking as you dream of rabbits

fearful of other dogs not so well treated.

You are not the shepherd’s white dog

nipping at the legs of stray sheep

guardian and keeper of the flock

chasing away your wolf cousins

your lineage and history forgotten

nor are you a dog of war

half-starved and constantly beaten

made ferocious by the hands and whips of man

returned to your wild wolf origins

let slip to fight in the politics of conquest.

Caught in full flight made static by the potter

you have no name: you are every dog

man has ever loved and lived with

your barks echo back and forth down the ages

companionship resonating with the warmth of centuries

as timeless as the earth you are made from.

Prayer to Bacchus

The child’s drinking vessel is an interesting object as it’s adorned with vines and grapes – signs of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry. This wouldn’t be something obvious to put on a child’s object! I wanted to imagine why this might have happened, and who would get their child such an object. I settled on a new father, who was perhaps regretting his overindulgence and wanted to make peace with the gods through a prayer.

Dan with the objects from the British Museum. You can see the baby feeder in the bottom left-hand corner of the case.

Dan with the objects from the British Museum. You can see the baby feeder in the bottom left-hand corner of the case.

Janus, hear my prayer

you, god of many faces and roles:

as Consevius you have created new life

blessed my marriage with a beginning

Janus, you have opened a portal in time

as my child sets out on his life’s journey –

hear my prayer.

Bacchus, see my child

you, god of the harvest and fertility

who have been kind to me already

now I ask more of you:

for though you are god of bliss and pleasure

you, god of wine, have another face –

that of bitterness and fury.

Do not let my son inherit the weakness of his father:

I am too often found sat, alone and in company

my wine cup constantly empty and full

with a serpent lying in wait coiled around my happiness

the poison ivy of cynicism creeping through my veins

my thyrsus in hand, wand turned to weapon

the raging bull of my anger ready to charge.

Bacchus, do not look on my son with this drunk darkness

but rather with smiles and red-faced delight

do not tempt my child to the ruin I have suffered

but rather to understand you as a fickle god

the pleasures of your madness and ecstasy as transient

wine as occasional and brilliant as music and dance

a fleeting beauty, not a permanent scar.

I honour you with this drinking vessel

adorned with vines and fig trees

your hopeful symbols of life and joy

given to my child so he may always remember you

I leave wine in this bowl in dedication of you

freshly-harvested corn for the eternal feast

accept my sacrifices, Bacchus.

Hear my prayer, Vesta

goddess of hearth and home

I seal my words with you

with the intensity of sacred fire:

may the future for my son

be not one of struggle and strife

but of harmony with Bacchus.

Corinium Cockerel

I knew I had to write a poem on the Corinium Cockerel – the artefact is truly beautiful, and its backstory is tragic and intriguing. It’s the kind of object you want to reach out to and hold with your hands, and I can imagine that being especially true for a child. As it was buried in a child’s grave, it must have been loved by them – and the child in turn loved by the family.

To see the cockerel and hear Dan’s poem, click here.

Dan absorbed by the cockerel.

Dan absorbed by the cockerel.

Go, cockerel: I send you away from my household

and into the next world with my child

she, who was so fond of you in life

demanding to hold and play with you

at every moment of the day

from her waking cry at first light

to her softly-breathing sleep at night.

In some ways you are alive

animated by the craft of the bronze-worker

his hands shaping the prideful curve of breast and wing

the definite fix of comb and wattle

the lively detail of eye and beak

but it was my child who – like some infant Pygmalion –

breathed life into you through her love.

And yet more than this – we all gave you spirit:

in the hollow of your back you hold memories

household stories of a mother’s love

everyday moments of a father’s affection

sounds of siblings’ teasing and laughter

the clash and clatter of an entire household

turning our villa inside out, trying to find you when lost.

The dark shade of night’s sky lightens to deep blue

after this profoundly long and severe night

and I remember that you are Mercury’s creature:

heralding the coming of the light with a cry of triumph

a message from the gods that a new day is here

that we mortals are not forgotten by the gods

hope rising as surely – and slowly – as the sun.

Speak for me now, you who may speak freely with Mercury

tell him of my child who can no longer see that light

nor feel the first touch of Sol’s warmth

put my anguish into your crowing

give voice to my grief where I can not

so that the gods may know

something of mortal suffering.

Tell Apollo that his medicine does not always work

and that Mors has eager teeth to take one so young

crow for her who can no longer cry

and charge Mercury to see her safe

in her passage to the afterlife

where I may see her again one day

holding you, cockerel, as I hold you now.

To find out more about Dan and his poetry, click here.

To hear Dan recite these poems, click here.

Try this at home! Recipes from the Roman Food Festival (30-31 May 2015)

Last weekend we had a great time tasting, sniffing and touching Roman food and food remains. For those of you who couldn’t make it, or for those who want more, here are recipes for some of the food from the festival.

Sampling some of these recipes at the festival.

Sampling some of these recipes at the festival.


Mulsum was a wine flavoured with spices and sweetened with honey, mixed in just before it was drunk. The taste is similar to mulled wine, but more watery.

  • 3 cups lukewarm water
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 tsp whole cloves
  • 4 tbsp runny honey

Add all the ingredients to a large container or pitcher and stir well. Refrigerate for 24 hours to allow the spices to infuse, then remove the cinnamon stick and cloves. Serve warm or chilled

This will make about 4 cups and can be stored in a refrigerator for up to 5 days.

If you are using a thick honey, you may need to blend the wine, water and honey before adding in the spices.

Simon's 'Marcham Mulsum' - are these the modern equivalent of amphorae?

Simon’s ‘Marcham Mulsum’ – are these the modern equivalent of amphorae?


Moretum is the name given to a dish prepared in a mortarium or grinding bowl – like a modern pestle and mortar. It is often made of fresh cheese, herbs, olive oil and vinegar and is very similar to what we call pesto. Virgil, a Roman poet, even wrote a poem dedicated to moretum.

  • 1 small head of lettuce
  • 100g fresh mint
  • 50 g fresh parsley
  • 200 g ricotta cheese
  • Pepper
  • 1 small leek/celery
  • 50 g coriander seeds
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • Vinegar
  • Olive oil

Process all the ingredients in a food processor – or to be more authentic, in a pestle and mortar.

You can use this as a dip with celery and carrot sticks. You could also spread it on Roman bread – for a recipe, click here.



Libum was a special kind of cake used as an offering to the gods that was sweetened with honey. The recipe comes from Cato (De Agricultura 75), but the cakes are also mentioned by Roman poets, like Ovid.

  • 1 cup spelt flour
  • 8 oz ricotta cheese
  • 1 beaten egg
  • ½ cup clear honey
  • Bay leaves

Grease a baking tray and cover with the bay leaves. Beat the cheese until smooth. Add the egg and beat until smooth. Slowly add the flour to the beaten cheese and egg. Gather up the dough and gently form into a round ball (for one large cake) or into small balls (for smaller cakes). Place the ball(s) directly onto the bay leaves. Bake in a hot oven (425F/200C/gas mark 7) for c 20-25 minutes, until golden brown and firm to the touch. Remove from the oven and score . Warm the honey and pour over the cake(s). Serve warm.

Simon and the Trendles Project with their foodstuffs ready for sampling!

Simon and the Trendles Project with their foodstuffs ready for sampling!

These recipes were cooked and selected for the festival by Simon Blackmore, who is one of the Trendles Project team. We are very grateful to Simon and the Trendles Project for sharing their food with us! To find out more about the Trendles Project, visit their website.

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.

Food for Thought Exhibition: Installation Day 3

Today began much more smoothly with no transportation hiccups. In the morning, Miranda Creswell and I installed her ‘Chop Marks’ exhibit. The exhibit comprises a set of modern, used chopping boards (including one of mine!) on which Miranda has responded to the chop marks in her drawings of imagined landscapes. We also did a trial run of Heather’s projection, which shows objects that we weren’t able to include in the exhibition – happy to say, it all works. In my opinion, both ‘Chop Marks’ and the projection add some lovely texture to the exhibition. We then spent the rest of the afternoon doing the finishing touches, ready (nearly) for our preview tomorrow evening.

Miranda, making sure that 'Chop Marks' is looking its best.

Miranda, making sure that ‘Chop Marks’ is looking its best.

Any measures to make sure everything is hanging correctly!

Any measures to make sure everything is hanging correctly!

Food objects have many uses - here my upside-down (modern) pie dish makes for a very handy projector prop.

Food objects have many uses – here my upside-down (modern) pie dish makes for a very handy projector prop.

Numbering the exhibits - these little stickers are surprisingly fiddly and difficult to get straight.

Numbering the exhibits – these little stickers are surprisingly fiddly and difficult to get straight.

Case labels waiting to take their place in the exhibition.

Case labels waiting to take their place in the exhibition.

And my final job of the day - touching up the paintwork.

And my final job of the day – touching up the paintwork.

If you would like to know more about Miranda’s art, you can follow her on twitter:


and read her blog at:

Food for Thought Exhibition: Installation Day 2

Today did not start well – Heather’s car wouldn’t start and Lisa was stuck on a train with a flat tyre (!). We battled on, however, and by the end of the day we had made lots of progress. While I was out collecting Lisa from the train station, James and Dan hung our panels. When we had everyone together in the museum, we then continued installing the rest of the objects, using material from Corinium Museum’s stores and from the University of Reading’s Silchester Insula IX Townlife project. Dan also spent some time planning his gallery talk on learning about food from Roman pottery, which will be on 21st May, and gathering food memories from the staff of the museum to hang on our memory trees.

Yay! Against the odds, Heather and Lisa have both made it to the museum!

Yay! Against the odds, Heather and Lisa have both made it to the museum!

Lisa adding some seeds from Silchester to the 'How do we know about Roman food?' case.

Lisa adding some seeds from Silchester to the ‘How do we know about Roman food?’ case.

Our memory trees, already filling up with people's food memories. The trees are both olive trees, which were grown widely around the Mediterranean during the Roman period.

Our memory trees, already filling up with people’s food memories. The trees are both olive trees, which were grown widely around the Mediterranean during the Roman period.

What food memory will you share with us? If you can't come to the exhibition ,you could tweet us @NotJustDormice

What food memory will you share with us? If you can’t come to the exhibition, you could tweet us @NotJustDormice

Food For Thought Exhibition: Installation Day 1

Today saw the first objects being installed at our exhibition. A great big thank you to Vikki Jessop from the British Museum for all her expertise and help installing the objects that we have on loan. Looking forward to day 2!

After months of waiting, the truck has arrived!

After months of waiting, the truck has arrived!

Unpacking the first box of objects.

Unpacking the first box of objects.

Our poster boy, Bacchus, emerging from his packaging.

Our poster boy, Bacchus, emerging from his packaging.

Corinium Museum's Director, Amanda Hart, and Vikki Jessop from the British Museum checking the condition of Bacchus after his journey.

Corinium Museum’s Director, Amanda Hart, and Vikki Jessop from the British Museum checking the condition of Bacchus after his journey.

Vikki and I carefully place Bacchus into his new home for the next three months.

Vikki and I carefully place Bacchus into his new home for the next three months.

The mule-shaped couch decoration being checked as he sits on his custom-made mount, ready to go in the case.

The mule-shaped couch decoration being checked as he sits on his custom-made mount, ready to go in the case.

Part way through the installation: Bacchus has some new friends.

Part way through the installation: Bacchus has some new friends.

And to see the rest of the objects on loan from the British Museum, you will have to come to the exhibition, which starts this Saturday.

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.

A ‘melting pot’? Pottery use and dining in pre-Roman Britain

by Guest Blogger: Adam Sutton (to see more about Adam go to our ‘guest bloggers’ page)

Pottery is a very versatile kind of archaeological artefact. As archaeologists we love using it for dating our sites and the features that occur on them, and ceramics specialists also often use a variety of methods to try to work out where different types of pottery were made, in order to talk about distribution patterns and reconstruct ancient trade. However in recent years pottery has also been used as evidence to talk about the consumption of food and drink in the past; after all, most pottery – then as now – is simply what people used to store, prepare, and serve food.

A previous post has already discussed the evidence for foreign foods at late Iron Age Silchester and pointed out how diet appears to have been changing during this period. This post will look at the pottery from this period in a similar light – whereas plant remains can tell us about what was being eaten in the past, pottery can inform us about how those foods were being eaten, which I hope to show is of equal importance.

The pottery being used and produced in southern Britain during the late Iron Age and early Roman periods (broadly, the first centuries BC and AD) went through some quite fundamental changes and was highly distinct from vessels being used previously. Earlier Iron Age pot forms are typically very simple ‘open’ or ‘closed’ forms, i.e. corresponding to modern ideas of jars and bowls. It is thought that much of what was prepared in these simple vessels was ‘wet’ food such as stews and porridges, which, in the apparent absence of any real tablewares would have been eaten communally from the pot in which the food was cooked, or perhaps from a single service vessel. In the first century BC, however, pottery changed radically. A wider variety of forms became available in southern Britain, some of which seem to have been meant for display and specifically designed for the service of food and/or drink.

The changing range of pottery forms in the region of East Anglia, c. 125 BC (top) through to c. 10 BC (bottom) (image: J.D. Hill (2002)).

The changing range of pottery forms in the region of East Anglia, c. 125 BC (top) through to c. 10 BC (bottom) (image: J.D. Hill (2002)).

Many of these forms, such as plates, flagons, beakers and small bowls originated in northern Gaul (France) and Belgium, and signify drastically changing ways of consuming food and drink. The use of plates, for example, shows that ‘drier’ dishes were sometimes being served, whilst flagons suggest an emphasis on communal drinking associated with food. Finds of amphorae – large ceramic containers for transporting wine, olive oil, dried fruit, etc. from the Mediterranean – in wealthy burials such as that at Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire, show that the elites of this period had access to imported foodstuffs and seem to have developed a particular fondness for Roman wine. In addition, the ceramics used to make many of these tablewares are of far higher quality than those known in Britain previously, and would have presented a more diverse range of colours, textures and sounds when used at the table, contributing to a completely different dining experience than previously.

Reconstruction of the Welwyn Garden City cremation-burial, showing a selection of flagons, bowls, plates and drinking vessels, as well as several imported wine amphorae. Image by Andres Rueda via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0 (].

Reconstruction of the Welwyn Garden City cremation-burial, showing a selection of flagons, bowls, plates and drinking vessels, as well as several imported wine amphorae. Image by Andres Rueda via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0 (

All of this change has been interpreted in different ways by archaeologists. In the 1980s it was popular to see the use of new kinds of pottery and foodstuffs as the preserve of tribal elites, who used their tablewares to advertise their access to expensive imports and their knowledge of exotic ways of eating and drinking (Haselgrove 1982; Millett 1990). There may be a degree of truth in this, but recently more emphasis has been put on the changing role of food and drink in everyday life in the late Iron Age. In particular, it is revealing that not only the use of pottery changed in the late Iron Age, but also that pottery production changed. The introduction of the potter’s wheel, for example, suggests a move towards mass-production, in turn suggesting that demand for pottery increased as a result of changing consumption habits. This probably means that people in general – rather than the elites in particular – wanted more good-quality pottery with which to serve food and drink (Hill 2002).

But why did food and drink consumption change in the ways they did? The archaeology of the late Iron Age highlights growing links between Britain and the rest of Europe, and we have seen that this is well reflected in the pottery in the form of Mediterranean amphorae and northern French tablewares, themselves based to a large extent on Roman vessels. So does this mean we can in fact say that people were taking on a ‘Roman’ or ‘Mediterranean’ style of dining? More likely is that people in Britain were simply becoming more aware of the wider world – including but not limited to the Roman world – at this time, and that this was reflected in their dining habits. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that individuals and groups were relocating from the continent to Britain around this time (e.g. Fulford 2000; Timby 2013), and it is indeed conceivable that similar movement in the other direction also occurred. Food, being an important factor in signifying cultural identities and developing and invoking memories, is likely to have played an important role in how these communities perceived themselves, and perhaps in how they wished others to perceive them.

In this context we may see certain parallels between the late Iron Age of southern Britain and our modern world. Today, the process that we would call globalisation has resulted in a great degree of awareness of other cultures, and in particular has greatly expanded peoples’ knowledge of practices of eating and drinking that were traditionally only a feature of dining overseas. One now only needs to go into a high street cookware shop to find items such as woks, tagines, bamboo steamers, etc., whereas a generation or two ago these would not have been readily available; similarly, one needs only to take a look around the average British kitchen to find that such items are not only used by people from overseas or their descendants. Perhaps we can envisage a similar situation in the final generations of the Iron Age (Pitts 2008)? Britons may have become accustomed to meeting Gauls, Belgians, or Romans (or their descendants) in their everyday lives, and their dining habits may have been influenced by new ideas of eating and drinking that these individuals brought from their homelands. A similar process of fusion may have also occurred between these immigrant communities and the pre-existing British dining customs.

Drawing conclusions of this kind from archaeological evidence is riddled with complications, and I emphasise the fact that any single line of interpretation is usually inadequate to explain the plethora of evidence at our disposal. However, the evidence seems clear in showing that the uses of pottery in southern Britain were changing over the course of several generations prior to the Roman conquest. This almost certainly reflects changes in the ways in which food and drink were consumed, and tallies very nicely with the plant remains now being investigated from contemporary sites such as Silchester. Quite what it all means, however, remains a matter for future work and speculation.


Fulford, M.G., 2000. Synthesis. In Late Iron Age and Roman Silchester: excavations on the site of the forum-basilica 1977, 1980-86. London: Britannia Monograph 15, pp. 545–564.

Haselgrove, C., 1982. Wealth, prestige and power: the dynamics of late iron age political centralisation in south-east England. In C. Renfrew & S. Shennan, eds. Ranking, resource and exchange: aspects of the archaeology of early European society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 79–88.

Hill, J.D., 2002. Just about the potter’s wheel? Using, making and depositing middle and later Iron Age pots in East Anglia. In A. Woodward & J. D. Hill, eds. Prehistoric Britain: The Ceramic Basis. Oxford: Oxbow Books, pp. 143–160.

Millett, M., 1990. The Romanization of Britain, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pitts, M., 2008. Globalizing the local in Roman Britain: An anthropological approach to social change. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 27(4), pp. 493–506.

Timby, J., 2013. A French connection? A brief review of early Roman pottery production in southern Britain. In H. Eckardt & S. Rippon, eds. Living and working in the Roman world: Essays in honour of Michael Fulford on his 65th birthday. Portsmouth, RI: JRA Supplementary Series 95, pp. 155–168.