Category Archives: How do we know about Roman food?

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.

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.


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.

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.)

Do you remember mulberries?

Mulberries were one of the many fruits which were enjoyed across the Roman world. Yet in modern Britain, mulberries are quite hard to get hold of. The fruits are extremely delicate when ripe, hindering their cultivation on a commercial scale. In an article bemoaning the rarity of mulberries, food writer Bee Wilson gives the following description –

“There is a fleshy softness to the texture and a fullness to the flavour, like Côtes du Rhône.”

And provides a quote from writer and smallholder Mark Diacono –

“It was the finest fruit I’d ever tasted, yet never in the shops. Imagine a blackberry, a raspberry and a handful of blackcurrants with a teaspoon of sherbet and you’ll have the mulberry

– the perfect fruit.”

Sounds delicious! A single mulberry tree grows in Forbury Gardens, Reading, and this video shows how eating the fruits creates strong memories for locals. My first mulberry was from a tree growing outside Aristotle’s Cave, Naousa in northern Greece, on an archaeobotanical field trip. The fruit was soft, sweet and delicious.

Mulberry tree

Mulberry tree growing outside Artistotle’s school, Naousa, Greece

Aristotle's Cave

Aristotle’s Cave

Mulberry trees (Morus nigra) are small spreading trees. They probably originated in Iran, but were cultivated by the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans (Vaughan and Geissler 2009). In Italy, Pliny wrote that little improvement was made to the mulberry tree, and varieties grown in Ostia, Tivoli and Rome were all the same (NH XV.27).  The pips of mulberries, like fig, are tough, and would survive well in mineralised (latrine pits) and waterlogged sediments (wells, pits). Yet archaeobotanical studies of settlements across the Roman world have shown that mulberry pips are quite rare.

Mulberry pips have been identified from some sites in Pompeii which have been sampled for plant remains. The fruits pips have been found from the House of the Vestals and the House of Hercules’ Wedding in Pompeii (Ciaraldi 2007), and have also been recovered from the Cardo V sewer in Herculaneum (Rowan pers. comm.). Mulberry pips are also rare in other parts of the Empire, in comparison to fruits such as fig and grape. They have been found from archaeological sites in Cologne, and a few settlements near the Rhine. Livarda has suggested that there may have been a connection between the military and mulberries (Livarda 2008, 117). In Britain, mulberry seeds have been found at London, Silchester and York, indicating that only wealthy urban dwellers had access to these fruits. Mulberry fruits have also been found from the other side of the Roman Empire. Desiccated pips have been recovered from the Roman quarry settlement of Mons Claudianus in the eastern desert of Egypt (Van der Veen 2001, p 194).

Mineralised mulberry pip ©LisaLodwick

Mineralised mulberry pip from Silchester Insula IX ©Lisa Lodwick

The rareness of mulberries in the Roman period was probably because of the same reasons as today – the fruits were very difficult to transport. Galen, the Greek physician, described how the fruits could not be dried (Grant 2000, p 110), whilst in Apicius, it is described how the Romans attempted to preserve the fruits in wine and in their own juice, but with little success (Vehling 1977, p 52).

Most experts on Roman plant remains think that occasional mulberry trees would have grown in urban centres, like Silchester, Cologne and Pompeii, much like in modern Reading. The taste of mulberries may have been on occasional delight for those in the Roman period, as today.

Do you remember mulberries? We would love to hear your memories!



Ciaraldi, M. 2007. People and Plants in Ancient Pompeii : a New Approach to Urbanism from the Microscope Room: the Use of Plant Resources at Pompeii and in the Pompeian Area from the 6th century BC to AD 79. London: Accordia Research Institute, University of London.

Grant, M. 2000. Galen on Food and Diet. London: Routledge.

Livarda, A. 2008. New temptations? Olive, Cherry and Mulberry in Roman and Medieval Europe. In S. Baker, M. Allen, S. Middle, & K. Poole (Eds.), Food & Drink in Archaeology 1 (pp. 73–83). Totnes: Prospect Books.

Van der Veen, M. 2001. The botanical evidence. In D. Peacock & V. Maxfield (Eds.), Survey and Excavations at Mons Claudianus 1987-1993, ii, The Excavations: Part 1 (pp. 175–222). Cairo: Institute Francais d’Archaeologie Orientale du Caire.

Vaughan, J. and Geissler, C. 2009. The New Oxford Book of Food Plants. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vehling, J. 1977. Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome: a Bibliography, Critical Review, and Translation of the Ancient Book Known as Apicius de re coquinaria: Now for the First Time Rendered into English. New York: Dover Publications.

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.

How do we know about Roman food? – waterlogged plant remains

Archaeologists learn about Roman food from a range of sources; mosaics, wall paintings, artefacts, written evidence, and bioarchaeological remains of foodstuffs. Plant foods, such as fruits, spices, cereal grains and pulses, are found at archaeological sites due to four types of preservation. These are charring, desiccation, calcium-phosphate mineralisation and waterlogging (see the glossary).

Waterlogged plant remains have provided archaeologists with some of the best evidence for plant foods in the north-western Roman Empire, showing that a wide range of new herbs, fruits and nuts were adopted. When plant remains are discarded into permanently wet places, they do not decay as they would on the ground surface or in compost bins. Waterlogged conditions are referred to as anaerobic, meaning there is no oxygen present. Bacteria, which would usually decay plant tissue, need oxygen to survive – without this, a wide range of plant remains can survive for thousands of years. These include ‘delicate’ remains such as celery seeds, box leaves, straw and bracken. Plant remains like this very rarely survive by charring (carbonisation).

Waterlogged conditions are found at 2 types of archaeological sites:

  1. Places which have been constantly waterlogged, forever. This happens due to a combination of settlements being built next to water, such as Roman London and York, frequent rainfall (Britain!), and the disposal of organic rubbish (stable flooring, food waste) faster than it can decay. This creates waterlogged conditions on the ground surface, and a wide range of organic materials are preserved, including floor timbers, leather shoes, and plant foods. A great example is the waterlogged conditions in the Walbrook Valley, London, where recent excavations by MoLA have uncovered timber drains.
  2.  The bottoms of many wells, which were dug to provide water in Roman times, have remained below the water table for the last two millennia. This means Roman settlements on dry land, such as Silchester, can still produce waterlogged plant remains from wells. The cramped, dark and wet conditions of wells are tricky to excavate, but a range of evidence for food waste, fodder material and settlement vegetation can be recovered.

A Roman well under excavation at Silchester (the Roman timber lining can be made out underneath the diggers feet – the timber shoring is modern!)

Samples of sediment taken from wells are processed using a flotation tank to extract the plant remains. Plant remains usually float on the surface of water, and can be collected in a sieve with a mesh size of 0.25mm.

Flotation of samples at the Silchester 'Town Life' Project

Flotation of samples at the Silchester ‘Town Life’ Project

The ‘waterlogged flot’ from samples is then taken back to the lab and sorted under a microscope. Seeds and other plant remains like leaves, buds, cereal chaff and fruit stones are removed, and identified by comparing them to seeds in a modern reference collection. This is  a lengthy process, but the results can tell us about the fruits and flavourings consumed by different communities who lived within the Roman Empire. We can also learn how diets change over time, and even how they varied between households!

Waterlogged plant remains, including blackberry pips

Waterlogged plant remains, including blackberry pips

For more information about waterlogged plant remains: