Category Archives: Environmental archaeology

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.

No spelt, please, we’re Saxon

Guest blogger Mark McKerracher considers the fate of foodstuffs after Roman rule…


The boats safely beached, four Germanic feet touched the sands of old Britannia. The heavily moustached faces of Hengest and Horsa looked out over these strange new shores, littered with imperial detritus. A limp, decaying sack lay at Horsa’s feet.

‘Spelt flakes,’ it read, ‘naturally rich in Romanitas.’

‘Pah,’ muttered Horsa. ‘Foreign muck.’


Behind this stirring vignette of the birth of England lies a real archaeological conundrum: why didn’t the Anglo-Saxons eat more spelt? The facts are simply stated. When charred crop deposits are excavated from Romano-British settlements, the wheat component is practically always dominated by one type: spelt wheat. Yet from the 5th century AD onwards, in deposits from Anglo-Saxon settlements, bread wheat takes its place, dominating the wheats to the near-total exclusion of spelt – as it has done, pretty much, ever since. After the collapse of Roman imperial governance in the early 5th century, the wheat scene in Britain seems to have changed faster than you can say ‘winnow.’ How can we explain this phenomenon? Why didn’t the Anglo-Saxons eat more spelt?

Spelt wheat

Spelt wheat 

Bread wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) and spelt wheat (Triticum spelta L.) in fact belong to the same biological species – a fact hidden by the traditional Latin names I’ve just used – but are different in a number of important ways. Perhaps most important to mention in a food blog is the fact that, although both wheats are versatile foodstuffs, their chief talents lie in different dietary directions. The key culinary attraction of bread wheat, from a modern bread-eating perspective, is that it makes a well-risen, better-leavened loaf. On the other hand, it’s said that spelt is better for brewing. So it’s possible that dietary preferences changed between the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods, with less of a taste for spelt ale and more of a taste for light, wheaten bread. But, as far as I know, there’s no independent evidence for such shifts in appetites. So if this interpretation is to hold water, we have to ask: is it plausible? Could the end of Roman administration have been accompanied by an abrupt change in eating and farming habits?

Well, with Roman towns in decline and Roman legions marching off, that’s two spelt-eating consumer populations disappearing from Britannia. But what about the rural folk – is it plausible that their habits changed so quickly? One answer is that, yes, habits did change, because the populace itself was changing. This is the traditional historical response: the Anglo-Saxon population largely replaced the Romano-British one, and similarly replaced their farming and dining practices – including new preferences in wheat crops. Different people had their own traditions, and therefore different crops and diets, just as they used different pottery, wore different brooches, and spoke a different language. This sort of interpretation was popular in the 19th and earlier 20th centuries in a paradigm known as ‘culture-historical’, whereby different ideas and practices were equated with different peoples: so if artefacts (or crops) change in the archaeological record, it’s interpreted in the context of migration.

Nowadays, however, archaeologists aren’t so quick to make that assumption – partly because theoretical models have changed, but partly also because of new evidence. Without more data from ancient DNA studies, we simply can’t know how much of the population was ‘replaced’ when the Anglo-Saxon settlers arrived. Also, and most relevant to the spelt question, archaeologists no longer envisage Saxon farmers carving out new virgin farmland amid the ruins of Britannia. Pollen analyses and landscape studies now suggest that much of the countryside remained continuously occupied and farmed from the Romano-British through to the Anglo-Saxon period. Practices changed, yes, and estates may well have changed hands, but there’s no evidence of abrupt and wholesale dislocation. Farmers in Anglo-Saxon England, whatever their ethnic origins, weren’t starting from scratch. So why didn’t they carry on growing the tried-and-tested spelt, at least to begin with?

Surely people weren’t so desperate for Triticum aestivum that they completely changed their cropping habits as soon as Roman rule ended, dropping spelt in the space of a generation? At the very least, we might expect something of a transitional period. Are there any signs of this in the archaeological record? Well, an increase in the occurrence of bread wheat has been observed among some Late Roman sites. Perhaps the final withdrawal of the Roman imperial presence was the last straw (or culm-ination – a little joke for you archaeobotanists out there), the tipping point at which spelt’s declining popularity slipped below that of bread wheat. But there’s still the problem of abruptness. According to the usual chronologies, spelt disappears practically overnight. If nothing else, that seems like a pretty risky farming strategy, even if bread wheat had started becoming more popular.

So maybe, just maybe, the Anglo-Saxons did eat more spelt – that is, more spelt than we usually credit them with. This idea is still a bit controversial, a bit speculative, but it needs to be taken seriously. Maybe spelt continued to be grown and eaten well after the turn of the 5th century, but we’re failing to see it because we so often tend to assume that spelt-rich deposits are Roman, or prehistoric. Even when a few stray spelt grains appear in Anglo-Saxon deposits, it’s often argued that they probably represent residual material, disturbed from a preceding Roman or prehistoric layer. And yet, for some time now, the evidence for apparently genuine Anglo-Saxon spelt has been growing. As early as 1979, archaeobotanist F. Green identified spelt in 9th century deposits in Gloucester, and grains have since appeared at Saxon settlements at Yarnton (Oxfordshire), Bishopstone (Sussex), Harston (Cambridgeshire), Lyminge (Kent), and other sites – rarely in great numbers, it must be said, but frequently enough to deserve closer attention. Maybe we should revisit some supposedly prehistoric or Roman spelt-rich deposits and try radiocarbon-dating them. They might turn out to be later than we’d thought.

I’m not suggesting that spelt continued being a major crop for centuries after the Roman withdrawal from Britain. But perhaps the transition from spelt to bread wheat could have been much more gradual than it currently appears – we just need more dates to find out.


Further reading

For excellent up-to-date works on Anglo-Saxon England generally, including plenty of archaeology, see Robyn Fleming’s Britain After Rome (2010, Penguin Books), and Nicholas J. Higham and Michael J. Ryan’s The Anglo-Saxon World (2013, Yale University Press).

For food history specifically, there are two readable, compendious volumes: Debby Banham’s Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon England (2004, Tempus Publishing) – sadly out of print at the moment – and Ann Hagen’s Anglo-Saxon Food & Drink (2006, Anglo-Saxon Books). Allen J. Frantzen’s recent book, Food, Eating and Identity in Early Medieval England (2014, Boydell Press) looks promising too, but I haven’t yet read it.


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.

Mouldy medlar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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