Category Archives: Guest Blogs

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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D.

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.

References:

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.

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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.

 

Hunting in the Roman world: anthropology, animal bones and ancient literature

By guest blogger Dr Martyn Allen (University of Reading)

Hunting in the Roman world is a rarely studied and poorly-understood phenomenon, and it is normally considered to have been quite unimportant to the Romans. This was a society which, of course, was based upon agriculture. Its wealth and complexity was founded on its ability to produce and transport large quantities of food to support both urban and rural populations, as well as a geographically-widespread military with high demands. As with all cultures, animals play a central and fundamental role, providing sources of food, means of transport, and offering companionship, practices which are often key to understanding those cultures. Due to the substantial economic importance of domestic livestock across the Roman Empire we could be forgiven for overlooking the relationships between people and wild animals. However, if these relationships are to tell us anything about Roman society, we must think more carefully about what it actually means to hunt: who is doing it, where they are doing it, and why. Hunting in agricultural societies is very different to that in hunter-gather societies. Firstly, for the latter group, there is no such thing as a ‘wild animal’–the classification exists only in our consciousness as the opposite of a domesticated animal–and, secondly, the ways in which hunter-gatherer groups and farmers behave towards and think about, animals are very different. A hunter-gather’s relationship with animals is one based upon kinship and trust, whilst the farmer-livestock relationship is more exploitative and unequal (Ingold 2000; Willerslev 2004). Hunting in agricultural societies must then also be seen in different terms.

Farming was first developed as a means of producing food, larger quantities of it in fact, leading to the development of more complex societies and settlements, such as towns and cities, a shift which largely eliminated the need to hunt animals for food. And yet, people did not stop hunting. The reasons why are much debated, because although game animals tend to be eaten they are not required for survival as they would be for hunter-gatherer communities (except perhaps in extreme circumstances, but not as a general rule). In addition, there is considerable debate surrounding what we actually classify as ‘hunting’ within farming communities. Anthropologists would argue that a hunt must involve an animal which is free to run away, or at least is perceived to be ‘free’ (Cartmill 1993, 29). The ‘running away’ bit is important, because the animal must not be under any obvious form of control or restriction. The hunt must also involve direct violence between the hunter and their quarry, albeit usually a short and very final act. There are, however, notable exceptions, such as trapping (fur-bearing mammals, for example). It is debatable of course, but this is not strictly a form of hunting under these criteria.

Importantly, it is the act of hunting which is important, rather than the production of meat. It is a social performance which sends an array of messages about the identity, or identities, of the people involved. Much ancient Greek literature concerning hunting discusses it as a form of military training, not only in a practical sense but also metaphorically, where the quarry are associated with a human enemy, and the hunting landscape (e.g. woodland, etc.) is perceived as a foreign land (Cartmill 1993, 32). This shows us that it is not only the relationship between people and wild animals which is important, but also their connection to the place where hunting is undertaken. Hunting takes place in the wild, within ‘nature’, beyond the domestic realm. Compared to ancient Greek literature, perhaps surprisingly, Roman writers were less intent on placing the same emphasis upon hunting. This is a cultural difference, but there are hints of Roman attitudes towards the natural world in the writing of its poets and in iconographic depictions of some of its elite citizens. More specifically, some of the early Emperors (particularly the Hadrianic ones) appear to have been keen on associating themselves with hunting, or at least the idea of hunting. Domitian, in particular, is to be found in numerous reliefs and carvings where he can be seen slaying wild beasts (Tuck 2005, 239). The contemporary writer Suetonius (Domitian 19) suggests that this was not merely a symbolic gesture, but was enacted by Domitian in the game park on his estate outside Rome.

However, not everyone in the Roman world was an advocate of hunting. Not because of animal welfare as might be the case today, but because hunting in this context was seen as transparent and overly-extravagant. Occasionally game was not even killed during the end of the chase, but first driven into nets and then presumably slaughtered (perhaps not even by the hunter, but by slaves). Such a practice may have removed one of the most important aspects of the hunt: the violent killing of a free animal. Pliny the Younger, poking fun at some of his notable contemporaries, humorously derided that he captured animals, not with spear and lance, but with pen and notebook in hand (Epistulae 1.6, quoted in Anderson 1985, 100). It was the chase, the show of horsemanship and mastery over the wild beast, and not necessarily the kill that was always important in the mind-sets of some. Despite the ambiguous nature of the hunt in the Roman world, as shown in its literature and its iconography, it would appear to have been an important device which demonstrated elite identity and social power within the landscape. It represented the authority of the emperor as protector of the Roman state and its people. But, how much hunting actually took place in the Roman Empire: how much meat from wild animals actually made it to the dining table and in whose house? And, was it really hunting, or merely hollow demonstrations by the wealthy few?

In Britain, archaeological excavations have produced an astonishing number of animal bone assemblages from an array of towns, military sites, and rural settlements all occupied during the period of Roman occupation (historically taken as AD43-410). However, the remains of wild animals in these assemblages are generally rare, normally occurring in very low quantities compared to the bones of domestic livestock. In a comparatively large assemblage, animal bones from wild species would normally register somewhere between 0.5%-2% of the total identified. An assemblage with a wild component of around 5% would be seen as exceptional, and only very occasionally do they occur in a greater frequency than this. But we should expect this. Domestic livestock were of major economic significance in Roman Britain, not only for meat, but also for dairy, wool, leather, horn, fat, and bone, not to mention the importance of manure and the use of cattle and horses for ploughing and traction–vital components of an agricultural society. It makes complete sense that the remains of domestic livestock dominate the faunal assemblages from Roman farms and towns. However, as I have sketched out above, the importance of wild animals in agricultural societies does not lie in their role within the economy, which would have been negligible at best, but in their symbolic importance. Deer bones found at late Iron Age and Roman sites in Britain are recovered in greater frequencies on villas and military sites, compared to other types of settlement (Allen 2014, 177), indicating that venison was more commonly eaten at higher-status sites. As is suggested by the historical accounts, the archaeological evidence does appear to show that deer more frequently hunted by those with landed wealth and by military groups, people with a level of social and economic power.

There is also evidence that some elite groups in Roman Britain furnished their estates with deer parks. Fishbourne Palace in West Sussex produced bones of fallow deer, a species which, although common today, is not native to Britain and was only properly introduced after the Norman Conquest. Radiocarbon dating and isotopic analysis (looking at chemical signatures) of fallow deer teeth from Roman Fishbourne showed that one individual had been imported during the mid-1st century AD, whilst a second had lived its entire life in Britain (Sykes et al. 2006). The results of this important analysis could be inferred as evidence for the maintenance of a breeding herd of fallow deer at the site at least into the 2nd century AD.

Unfused red deer Cervus elaphus femurs from Roman Fishbourne (photo by M Allen)

Unfused red deer Cervus elaphus femurs from Roman Fishbourne (photo by M Allen).

The analysis of red deer bones from Fishbourne, which were comparatively numerous, indicates that these animals may have been deliberately managed (Allen 2014, 178). Numerous red deer femur (thigh) bones came from skeletally-immature animals, whilst most other red deer bones were found to have been fully developed. The femur bone in the red deer is known to be one of the last to fully mature, which suggests that this species were generally killed and eaten at Fishbourne when within a restricted age range. Measurement of red deer bones has also indicated that most were from particularly large animals compared to those from other sites, suggesting that male stags were a focus for slaughter (Allen 2014, 179). Such a cull pattern would imply that red deer of particular age and gender were selected for killing rather than randomly caught in the wild, i.e. a deliberate management strategy was being employed. In addition, the recovery of some exceptionally young roe deer remains may also support this interpretation. Radiographs of a number of roe deer mandibles from Fishbourne have shown that some were culled almost as new-borns (neonates). This may indicate that neonatal roe deer were considered a delicacy by the inhabitants of the palace, and consumed soon after birth, but we must also think of this evidence in terms of management strategies. Roe deer were certainly hunted at Fishbourne, as attested by the remains of older animals, but the selection and removal of young would have enabled population control for risk management as well as the maintenance of a healthy herd.

Radiograph of neonatal roe deer Capreolus capreolus from Roman Fishbourne (photo by M Allen).

Radiograph of neonatal roe deer Capreolus capreolus from Roman Fishbourne (photo by M Allen).

It could be argued that deer were being slaughtered solely to keep local numbers of wild deer down, perhaps if they were being destructive to local farmland. However, if this was the case we should see similar evidence from other sites. Predominantly, this is not the case; deer management was not practiced by the vast majority of the rural population. On the other hand, if deer were being kept within an enclosed space, such as a game park, they would need to be consistently managed and maintained, firstly to minimise damage to the local environment, and secondly to provide suitable animals for the hunt, i.e. young stags. If we accept that the zooarchaeological evidence represents the presence of a managed deer park, it is helpful to view it against the ancient literature, because it is here that we find the attitudes of Roman elite groups towards wild animals and how this was reflected in what it meant to have been a member of the elite classes during that period. Of course, much more work is required on this desperately under-studied subject, particularly with regards to what the evidence means in terms of the relationships between different people, with animals, and also with the landscape, but when placed in context it is truly amazing what an animal bone can tell us!

If you want to know more about Martyn and his work, please take a look at his profile on our Guest Bloggers page.

References

Allen, M.G. (2014) ‘Chasing Sylvia’s Stag: Placing Deer in the Countryside of Roman Britain’ in Baker, K., Carden, R. and Madgwick, R. (eds.) Deer and People, Windgather, Oxford, pp.174–186.

Anderson, K. (1985) Hunting in the Ancient World, University of California, Berkeley.

Cartmill, M. (1993) A View to a Death in the Morning: Hunting and Nature through History, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Ingold, T. (2000) ‘From trust to domination: an alternative history of human-animal relations’ in Ingold, T. (ed.) The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, London, Routledge, pp. 61–76.

Sykes, N. J. White, J. Hayes, T. and Palmer, M. (2006) ‘Tracking animals using strontium isotopes in teeth: the role of fallow deer (Dama dama) in Roman Britain’, Antiquity 80, 948–959.

Tuck, S. (2005) ‘The origins of Roman imperial hunting imagery: Domitian and the redefinition of virtus under the principate’, Greece & Rome 52, 221–45.

Willerslev, R. (2004) ‘Not Animal, Not Not-Animal: Hunting, Imitation and Empathetic Knowledge among the Siberian Yukaghirs’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 10.3, 629–652.

Pigs, stews and eating taboos: ritualized eating and drinking in Roman Mithrasim

By Will Heisey 

(To see more about more Will and his interests, look at our guest bloggers page!)

Mithraism was an ancient Roman “mystery religion” that worshipped the Indo-Iranian God Mithras and flourished across the Roman Empire over the 1st to early 4th centuries AD. Such “mystery religions” emphasized secrecy and initiation, and there are few surviving historical records of their activities. For modern archaeologists, information about this cult is therefore reliant upon their archaeological remains.

Within Mithraism, eating was of fundamental ritual importance. The subterranean temple sites (called Mithraea) were designed like a Greco-Roman dining room, where two parallel benches provided a space for the congregants to recline and face each other whilst dining. The shared meals – a regular occurrence of cult practice – are thought by some scholars to have been references to an episode in cult mythology, where Mithras, after sacrificing a “cosmic” bull, subsequently feasted upon its remains with the sun god Sol. Though, as I will demonstrate later, cattle were actually not eaten regularly in Mithraea.

The different areas of a Mithraeum as commonly defined by archaeologists. The two benches allowed cult worshippers to recline and face each other whilst dining.

The different areas of a Mithraeum as commonly defined by archaeologists. The two benches allowed cult worshippers to recline and face each other whilst dining.

The archaeological remains of these common meals, excavated at Mithraea across the Roman world, are comprised primarily of animal bones and pottery. These remains are found scattered across the interior of the temple sites and also in specially excavated pits found both within and outside Mithraea. These remains have been the focus of my recent research and have shown numerous interesting aspects of eating and drinking in Mithraea.

Interestingly enough, Mithraea of the Roman Empire shared remarkably similar dining habits in both the particular domesticated animals that were preferred as well as the specific ages at which they were slaughtered. In the northwestern provinces, chicken and pig were overwhelmingly popular at Mithraic temples, whereas cattle were dramatically underrepresented. The preference for pig in particular might have influences from similar Roman military consumption patterns, as the cult is known to have been popular within this community. The absence of cattle in Mithraea is remarkable when considering that it was otherwise a popular species in the general diet of the northwestern provinces, and it may relate to a possible “ritual taboo” upon their consumption – not unlike modern Hinduism – given the importance of the “cosmic” bull in Mithraic mythology.

Scene depicting Sol and Mithras from the Marino Mithraeum. Note the bull haunch held by Mithras. The bull was an important astrological symbol in the mythology of Mithraism.

Scene depicting Sol and Mithras from the Marino Mithraeum. Note the bull haunch held by Mithras. The bull was an important astrological symbol in the mythology of Mithraism.

The slaughter ages of certain species, inferred from studying certain diagnostic bones, also share similarities across a variety of Mithraea. While chickens where usually of adult ages when they were slaughtered for Mithraic feasts, pigs were almost always juvenile ages. These similarities could reflect unknown culinary or religious preferences (possibly prearranged) that were shared across Mithraea.

Substantial assemblages of pottery vessels have also been excavated from many Mithraea. Pottery vessels could have been used for a variety of cooking, storage, or dining roles, and are therefore more difficult to interpret than animal bones, but they can indicate certain broad characteristics of Mithraic dining behavior. Across many Mithraea, bowls and dishes with high rims were favoured above more flat vessels such as plates. This might indicate that certain types of meals were preferred in Mithraic banquets, namely, semi-solid dishes like stews. Preparation and storage vessels, such as amphorae (storage and transport vessels) and mortaria (grinding bowls), were also commonly found at Mithraea and can indicate that cooking and meal preparation also took place within the temples or their enclosures.

Drinking vessels, which could have been used for wine, beer, or water, were a popular feature of many Mithraea. This popularity can imply that drinking had an important role to play in Mithraic ritual activities, such as in libations or in the sharing of vessels and their contents between congregants during the all-important communal meals.

A beaker (a type of drinking vessel) recovered from the Mithraeum of Martigny, with a dedicatory inscription in Greek.

A beaker (a type of drinking vessel) recovered from the Mithraeum of Martigny, with a dedicatory inscription in Greek.

Overall, dining was a fundamental aspect of the religious experience in the cult of Mithras. The presence of specific culinary preferences, shared across Mithraea of the northwestern provinces of the Roman Empire, can indicate that this cult placed an emphasis upon what specifically was to be consumed in Mithraic meals. The evidence of the pottery vessels can also further specify this consumption: stews might have been a popular menu item, and drinking was of the utmost importance.

 

Photo references:

1) The Mithraeum plan. Wiblé, F., 2004. Les petits objets du mithraeum de Martigny/Forum Claudii Vallensium. In: Martens, M., and De Boe, G., (eds.) 2004. Roman Mithraism: the Evidence of the Small Finds. Brussels: Museum Het Toreke, p. 137, Figure 3.

 

2) Scene depicting Sol and Luna. Vermaseren, M.J., 1982. Mithriaca III: The Mithraeum at Marino. Leiden: E.J. Brill. Plate VII.

 

3) Beaker from Martigny. Cusanelli-Bressenel, L., 2003. La céramique du Mithraeum de Martigny. Lausanne: Université de Lausanne, p. 74, Plate 7.