Category Archives: Ingredients

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


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

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.

Finding evidence for fish-breeding and fish-salting sites in the Roman Near East

When people think about fish in the Roman world, they often think about garum: a sauce made from salted and fermented fish that is similar to Thai fish-sauce (‘nam pla’). As well as this, we do also know of recipes for fresh fish from Apicius, for example baked bream and mackerel stuffed with mint, honey and hazelnuts. We also know that Romans ate salsamenta: salted fish. How much do we know, then, about where fish were bred and salted? In this blog post, I am going to focus on this question for a few sites in the Roman Near East (broadly the modern Middle East).

Painting of fish in the market building at Pompeii, where fish bones were also found in the drain.

Painting of fish in the market building at Pompeii, where fish bones were also found in the drain.

Identifying fishponds and fish-breeding sites archaeologically is not very easy as most vats and ponds could have other uses as well. We do, though, have a useful written source, Columella, who tells us that jars (‘cells) set into the walls were essential in a fish-breeding pond (De Re Rustica 8.1.3, 17.1-6). Identifying this special feature is much easier and has actually been done for some sites in the Roman Near East.

Such jars, set horizontally into the walls, were found at Khirbet Sabiya (300 jars: Ayalon 1979:175-177, 179), Caesarea (6th century: 60 jars (Gibson 1991:41) and Tel Tanninim: 16 Gaza amphorae (Stieglitz 1998:63-5)) and Sataf (Mango 2002:325). A similar arrangement was found in the south-eastern reservoir at Andarin in Syria. Instead of jars or amphorae rectangular recesses were found at the base of the reservoir walls, possibly numbering 200 (Mango 2002). The example from Andarin was very large measuring 61 m long x 61 m wide x 3 m deep because it also acted as a reservoir for irrigation supplies. The freshwater n this pond makes it possible that catfish were bred there. Catfish were the only freshwater fish bred in fishponds cited in ancient sources, such as Apicius and Pliny (André 1981:109-113); in addition, catfish bones have been identified in the assemblage retrieved from the cistern Andarin bathhouse, though not from the reservoir itself (Mango 2009:75).

Columella also recommends that the water for the fish should circulate (De Re Rustica 8.1.3, 17.1-6), which is what we find at most of these sites. The examples from Dor seem to have been fed by seawater (Raban 1995:343). A pipeline branch (Channel E) from the Caesarea High Level aqueduct channel A fed the reservoir at Tel Tanninim (Stieglitz 1998:57-8). Spring water from a spring flow tunnel at Ein Bikura, Sataf fed a pool with two rows of ceramic jars in its sides with mouths towards the pool (Gibson 1991:41). In all of these cases the nature of the water supply means that a constant supply of circulating water was ensured (see Columella De Re Rustica 8.1.3, 17.1-6).

There are also examples from the Near East where we don’t have jars, but think that fish might have been bred in these installations. These are some paired rock-cut tanks from Dor (Raban 1995:343) and Beirut (Thorpe 1998-9: 36-38), which had no recesses or jars. It has been suggested that the Beirut tanks, which were lined with opus signinum (waterproof concrete), might have been holding tanks for holding the catch after the return of the fishing vessels. This is because the vats were in close proximity to a cove to which they were linked by a flight of steps. A similar function is also possible for the Dor installations as they were also situated very close to the coastline.

Alternatively, it is possible that these were vats for the production of salsamenta where the flesh of the fish was cut up and salted. While there is evidence that fish were salted in the eastern Mediterranean, archaeological evidence has been lacking so far, prompting the idea that maybe the process was done in large ceramic jars, such as pithoi or dolia (Wilson 2006; Curtis 1991:112-8, 129-147). Salting vats in the western Mediterranean (in particular Spain, Portugal and Morocco) were remarkably similar and almost universal in construction, though they varied in size and depth (Trakadas 2005:69-72). While the rectangular or square tanks in the western Mediterranean were usually built of brick or rubble, rock-cut examples are known from Portugal at Punta de l’Arenal and Praia de Angeiras. These Portuguese examples were not joined together as was usual elsewhere, which is similar to the possible salting vats from the East. The western examples were faced with opus signinum, as at Beirut. So, the pairs of vats at Beirut and Dor illustrate some, but not all, of the common traits found at the sites in the western empire. It is possible, but not definite, that these installations may be, then, the first fish-salting sites identified from the eastern Mediterranean.

For more detail about these sites, see my book: Archaeologies of Water in the Roman Near East by Zena Kamash (2010; Gorgias Press)



André, J. L’Alimentation et La Cuisine à Rome (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1981).

Ayalon, E. “The jar installation of Khirbet Sabiya,” Israel Exploration Journal 29 (1979), 175-181.

Gibson, S. “The Sataf project of landscape archaeology and the Judean hills: a preliminary report on four seasons of survey and excavation (1987-1989),” Levant 23 (1991), 23-54.

Mango, M. “Fishing in the desert,” Palaeoslavica 10/1 (2002), 323-330. Mango, M. “Baths, reservoirs and water use at Androna in late antiquity and the early Islamic period,” in Bartl, K. and al-Razzaq Moaz, A. (eds) Residences, Castles, Settlements. Transformation Processes from Late Antiquity to Early Islam in Bilad al-Sham (Rahden: Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, 2009), 73-88.

Raban, A. “Dor-Yam: maritime and coastal installations at Dor in their geomorphological and stratigraphic context,” in Stern, E. and Berg, J. Excavations at Dor: Final Report (Jerusalem: IES, 1995), 285-354.

Stieglitz, R. R. “A late Byzantine reservoir and piscina at Tel Tanninim,” Israel Exploration Journal 48/1-2 (1998), 54-65.

Thorpe, R. “Bey 007: the souks area: preliminary report of the AUB/ACRE project,” Bulletin d’Archéologie et d’Architecture Libanaises 3 (1998-1999), 31-55.

Trakadas, A. “The archaeological evidence for fish processing in the western Mediterranean,” in Bekker-Nielsen, T. (ed.) Ancient Fishing and Fish Processing in the Black Sea Region (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2005), 47-82.

Wilson, A. “Fishy business: Roman exploitation of marine resources,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 19 (2006), 525-537.



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.

Coriander – the nation’s favourite herb?

Coriander has been hitting the news recently, as it has been revealed that coriander is the favourite fresh herb in Britain, with over 30 million packs sold in 2013, due to the growing popularity of Asian and Mexican food. Coriander is a key ingredient today among chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Yotam Ottolenghi.

Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) is a small annual herb, found growing today from southern Europe to north Africa and south-west Asia. The seeds and leaves are most commonly used in cooking, but the roots are also used in Thai dishes. The use of coriander seeds in the past is evidenced by written texts, such as Linear B tablets, and archaeobotanical remains of the seeds, which are technically the mericarps or fruits of the plant. Seeds are far more common in waterlogged sediments and mineralised deposits than in charred samples, as the oil contained in the seeds makes them burn quickly. The leaves are far more delicate, and have never been recovered from archaeological sites.


Coriander plant By Krish Dulal (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The first recorded use of coriander as a flavouring is from Nahal Hemar cave in Israel, c. 6000 BC (the pre-pottery Neolithic B period), where 15 dessicated coriander seeds were found. Coriander seeds have also been found at numerous Neolithic and Bronze Age sites in the eastern Mediterranean (Zohary et al. 2012, 163). Amongst those ancient people with a taste for coriander was the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, as several baskets of coriander seeds were found in his tomb (Hepper 1990).

As in modern day Britain, coriander was equally popular in the Roman world, with the leaves or seed used in 18% of the recipes contained in the writings attributed to Apicius (Cool 2006, 66). Coriander features in such classic Apician recipes as “lentils with chestnuts” (seeds), “asparagus patina” (leaves), and “marrows, Alexandrian fashion” (seeds).

Fragment of coriander seed from Early Roman Insula IX, Silchester. © LisaLodwick

Fragment of coriander seed from Early Roman Insula IX, Silchester. © LisaLodwick

Coriander was also one of the most popular plants to be adopted in north-western Europe. At the Late Iron Age oppidum of Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester), southern England, coriander was actually imported before the Claudian Invasion of AD43, as seeds were found in waterlogged sediments in a well dated to c. 20/10BC-10/20 AD (Lodwick 2014). Coriander was also popular with the military, as seeds have been found from forts at Alchester, Bearsden, Castleford and Ribchester. Several centuries after this, coriander was the most popular new flavouring in the whole province, recorded in 50% of all studied sites c. 100-300 AD (Van der Veen et al. 2008), which included not only towns, forts and villas, but also rural settlements.

Across north-western Europe as a whole, coriander is characteristic of Roman settlements (Bakels and Jacomet 2003). A great example is the rural settlement of Oss-Ussen in the Netherlands, on the edge of the Meuse valley (Bakels et al. 1997). During the Roman period, people lived in hamlets of several houses, within ditched enclosures. Coriander was used from the second century AD onwards, alongside beet, celery and summer savory, although these foods would have been eaten alongside ‘Iron Age’ ingredients such as barley, flax, emmer and spelt wheat. Other than spicing up food in the Roman world, coriander may have been used in other ways. Coriander could have been used as an aromata in perfumes (Miller 1969, 6-7) or to preserve meat (Wiethold 2010).

To feed the need for coriander, it was grown on a large scale in Egypt (Prance and Nesbitt 2005, 162). Coriander would have been transported in small jars or sacks, and was being sold in shops in Roman Britain a few decades after the Roman invasion. Coriander seeds were found amongst the charred debris from a burnt pottery shop at Colchester, destroyed during the Boudican revolt (Murphy 1977). A similar shop at 1 Poultry, London, was also selling coriander, alongside mustard, dill, fennel, and black cumin (Hill and Rowsome 2011). There are also indications that it was grown in Roman towns in Britain. Coriander seeds were very common in waterlogged samples from Early Roman wells at Insula IX, Silchester, suggesting small plots of coriander were growing amongst the timber houses.

After the decline of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the fifth century AD, coriander was used far less. Seeds are rarely found from archaeological sites dating to the Early Medieval period, AD 500-950, in north-western Europe. The sites where the seeds have been found are mainly trading settlements and large towns. Coriander did become more popular from AD950-1500, but use of the flavouring was limited to town-dwellers (Livarda and Van der Veen 2008).

If the Roman period is anything to go by, it seems the current popularity of coriander is only going to increase!


Open Access articles

Bakels, C., Wesselingh, D. and Amen, I. 1997. Acquiring a taste: the diet of Iron Age and Roman period farmers at Oss-Ussen, the Netherlands. Analecta Praehistorica Leidensia 29, 193–211.

Hill, J. and Rowsome, P. 2011. Roman London and the Walbrook Stream Crossing: Excavations at 1 Poultry and Vicinity, City of London Part 2. London: MoLA Monograph 37.

A blog post on the site can be read here

Lodwick, L. 2014. Condiments before Claudius: new plant foods at the Late Iron Age oppidum at Silchester, UK. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 23: 543-549.

Wiethold, J. 2010. L’histoire et l’utilisation de la coriandre (Coriandrum sativum L.), à partir du deuxième âge du Fer jusqu’au début de l’époque moderne. Culture, utilisation, sources écrites et données carpologiques. In C. Delhon, I. Théry-Parisot and S. Thiébault (Eds.), Des Hommes et des Plantes. Exploitation du Milieu et Gestion des Ressources Végétales de la Préhistoire à nos Jours. XXXe Rencontres Internationales d’Archéologie et d’Histoire d’Antibes (pp. 141–159). Juan-les-Pins: Editions APDCA.


Cool, H. 2006. Eating and Drinking in Roman Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hepper, N. 1990. Pharaoh’s Flowers: The Botanical Treasures of Tutankhamun. University of Chicago Press.

Miller, J. I. 1969. The Spice Trade of the Roman Empire (29 BC to AD 641). Oxford.

Murphy, P. 1977. Early Agriculture and Environment on the Hampshire Chalklands: circa. 800 B.C. – 400 A.D. University of Southampton. Unpublished MPhil thesis.

Prance, G. and Nesbitt, M. 2005. The Cultural History of Plants. New York: Routledge.

Zohary, D., Hopf, M., & Weiss, E. 2012. Domestication of Plants in the Old World: the Origin and Spread of Domesticated Plants in South-West Asia, Europe, and the Mediterranean Basin. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pay-walled articles

Bakels, C. and Jacomet, S. 2003. Access to luxury foods in Central Europe during the Roman period: the archaeobotanical evidence. World Archaeology 34 (3), 542–557.

Livarda, A. and Van der Veen, M. 2008. Social access and dispersal of condiments in North-West Europe from the Roman to the Medieval period. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 17 (S1), S201–S209.

Van der Veen, M., Livarda, A. and Hill, A. 2008. New plant foods in Roman Britain — dispersal and social access. Environmental Archaeology 13 (1), 11–36.