Tag Archives: Roman

The place of plants in pre-Islamic Saharan trade: cultivation and consumption of plant foods by the Garamantes

The Garamantes, a tribal group who occupied Fazzan, southern Libya from c900BC to  AD500, held a strategically important position within a complex trade network linking sub-Saharan and east Africa with the Mediterranean and Nile valley.  Through contact with diverse cultural groups they evolved agricultural, material, burial and building traditions which reflect both their desert origins and their trading links. Plant remains and artefacts associated with food and consumption recovered during the Fazzan Project , particularly excavations at the ancient capital of Garama (Old Garma), led by David Mattingly of Leicester University, indicate that this ‘fusion’ culture can also be seen in the agricultue and diet of the population.

Aerial view of excavations at Garma showing the final Garamantian phases . (Copyright Toby Savage)

Settled agricultural communities emerged in the first half of the 1st millennium BC, with a material culture evolved locally from the preceding late pastoral Neolithic period. The crops cultivated were more Mediterranean in character: emmer wheat, barley, and a small amount of bread type wheat, as well as the fruits grapes and figs. Dates, which are more suited to the desert oasis environment, were also cultivated, but may have been introduced to the region somewhat earlier (dates have been found in late pastoral Neolithic graves). Crops were probably grown in small garden plots, likely to have been regularly heaped with manure, perhaps with shade provided by the date palms, and irrigated by water, possible drawn from wells.

Towards the end of the first millennium cultural and archaeobotanical evidence indicates a new wave of influences, contemporary with the emergence of complex trading societies both north and south of the Sahara (Greek and Phoenician settlements, the beginnings of the Kingdom of Ghana, and city state of Djenné-Djenno, and the Kushite/Meroitic Kingdoms). The introduction of a new irrigation technique, foggara, originating from Persia and introduced via the Egyptian Oases, must have revolutionised arable production. Foggara technology enabled an increase in the speed water was taken to the fields and the area of land irrigated, as well as enabling year round cultivation and the introduction of two significant summer crops from sub-Saharan Africa: sorghum and pearl millet. Sorghum arrived in Nubia (southern Egypt/northern Sudan) at a similar time but appears to have been a different type to that found in Garamantian Fazzan, and which eventually evolved into the durra type grown both in Nubia and Fazzan today. Slaves may have been used to construct and maintain the new irrigation system and it is possible that they brought crops and associated artefacts with them. New pottery types included flat doka, ceramic platters which are thought to be associated with making flat, pancake type bread, and in Sudan are assumed to be associated with sorghum. The doka disappear from the site of Garama in the Islamic period when bread ovens started to appear, suggesting a change in bread technology associated perhaps with new social influences. Quern stones were flat, saddle quern types, and are found on both settlement sites and within burials, suggesting a particular significance. Other cultural evidence for sub-Saharan contacts include a lip plug found in the grave of a young woman. From the Mediterranean region Punic beads and Punic/Hellenistic amphora have been found on settlement sites, indicating the import of consumable goods. Graves were marked by upright stone stele and offering tables, which may have contained food.


Agriculture in Fazzan: adding manure to garden plots (top) and irrigating winter cereals (bottom). Copyright Ruth Pelling.

SEM images of Pennisetum glaucum (pearl millet) (left) and Sorghum bicolour (sorghum) (right) from the site of Tinda B. Copyright Ruth Pelling.

SEM images of Pennisetum glaucum (pearl millet) (bottom) and Sorghum bicolour (sorghum) (top) from the site of Tinda B. Copyright Ruth Pelling.


The 1st and 2nd centuries AD represent the high point of Garamantian society, coinciding with the maximum extent and wealth of the Roman Empire as well as the flourishing of sub-Saharan kingdoms. It is likely that the Garamantes grew wealthy due to their access to water and strategic geographical position at the centre of a complex trading network which took gold, salt, slaves and wild animals (and later cotton and rice) to the north, and consumable goods like oil and wine as well as ceramics, glassware and worked jewellery, to Fazzan, and maybe beyond. In this period large quantities of imported vessels appear in both grave assemblages and on settlement sites: amphorae, glassware, sigilata, oil lamps and more utilitarian ceramic coarse-wares.  Rotary querns appear for the first time, initially imported basaltic lava examples, soon replaced by locally produced sandstone versions. Deep mortars also emerge, better suited to pounding millets and other small seeds, as well as non-food items. New food crops which appear include imported fruits such as pomegranate, almond and cucumber or melon (the seeds are difficult to distinguish if preservation is poor). A new wheat type, durum wheat, appears which is the variety associated with pasta and couscous. Fish bones of Mediterranean origin have even been recovered, perhaps imported with garum fish paste. Camel also appears at this time, while large deposits of seeds of wild, thorny shrubs only usually consumed by camels, suggest some tethering or stabling of the animals within the settlement. Ceramic fine-wares were mostly recovered from grave assemblages, often accompanied by quern stones (rotary and saddle querns), glass, amphorae, and oil lamps, perhaps related to the funerary rite. Stele and offering tables continue to mark the graves. In contrast the ceramics from within the settlement sites tend to be of more utilitarian imported coarse-ware as well as locally produced pots. New types of coarse-ware include casseroles and saucepans with lids. It is tempting to suggest a link with the introduction of durum wheat and perhaps a development of more sauce based couscous type dishes.

Towards the end of the Garamantian period the population and the wealth of imported goods declined. The range of exotic imported fruits dwindled and sorghum disappears from the archaeobotanical record. Interestingly cotton, a crop first domesticated in the Indian sub-continent, but also possibly domesticated in sub-Saharan Africa, appears in the archaeobotanical record during the later phases of the Roman Empire, perhaps to fill demand for cotton cloth at a time when the decline in global trade networks reduced the availability of imported Indian cloth. The disappearance of sorghum could be related to the reduction in sorghum growing population, particularly if it was associated with sub-Saharan slaves. When sorghum was reintroduced in the post-medieval period it was the durra type, which may have evolved in Nubia, and which is today known by its variety name ‘durra’, suggesting both name and crop were late introductions. Unlike sub-Saharan Africa, sorghum is not today cultivated as a bread grain or beer, but is more commonly use as animal feed, or a snack food (as pop-corn) or occasionally mixed with barley flour to produce bazeen, a flour, salt and water paste, eaten with meat and gravy. This is typical of a late adoption of a crop or food type into a pre-existing culinary tradition, rather that its introduction as part of a new cuisine or with a migrating population.

Ruth Pelling, Historic England

This discussion draws on a range of specialist and archaeological evidence generated by the project team, all of which is published in a series of volumes:


Mattingly, D. J., Daniels, C. M., Dore, J. N., Edwards, D. and Hawthorne, J. 2003. The Archaeology of Fazzān. Volume 1, Synthesis. The Society for Libyan Studies/Department of Antiquities, London.

Mattingly, D. J., Daniels, C. M., Dore, J. N., Edwards, D. and Hawthorne, J. 2007. The Archaeology of Fazzān. Volume 2, Gazetteer, Pottery and Other Finds. The Society for Libyan Studies/Department of Antiquities, London.

Mattingly, D. J., Daniels, C. M., Dore, J. N., Edwards, D. and Hawthorne, J. 2010. The Archaeology of Fazzān. Volume 3, Excavations of C.M. Daniels. The Society for Libyan Studies/Department of Antiquities, London.

Mattingly, D. J., Daniels, C. M., Dore, J. N., Edwards, D. and Hawthorne, J. 2014. The Archaeology of Fazzān. Volume 4, Survey and Excavations at Old Jarma (Ancient Garama) carried out by C. M. Daniels (1962–69) and the Fazzān Project (1997–2001). The Society for Libyan Studies/Department of Antiquities, London.

Pining after pine nuts

The growing popularity of pesto in recent years means pine nuts are now a common food in the UK. Pine nuts are also used in many Mediterranean dishes, such as eastern Mediterranean dolmades (stuffed vine leaves), Lebanese kibbeh  (raw meat and bulgur wheat) and Syrian kofta mabrouma (minced lamb and pine nuts) – see Laura Mason’s wonderful book Pine for many other recipes.

Nuts from any type of pine tree can be eaten, but traditionally it is the nuts from Stone or Umbrella pines (Pinus pinea L.) which are eaten in the Mediterranean. The stone pine is not a domesticated tree. So every year from October to March, pine cones are harvested from wild forests. The cones are left outside to ripen in the sun, before being beaten to remove the nuts. To cope with the huge demand, machines are now used to shake off the pine cones and to crush them to extract the nuts. Due to the huge global demands for them, many of the pine nuts sold in supermarkets come from other pines grown in China, such as the Chinese white pine.

Stone pine tree growing in Tuscany

Stone pine tree growing in Tuscany

Pine nuts were a common ingredient in the Apician recipes. Some of these are sweet dishes such as almond and semolina pudding (Apicius 2.2.10) or pine nut and honey pudding (Apicius 7.11.5). But pine nuts were also used in patinas (thick omelettes), faggots, sauces for meat and fish, and even stuffed kidneys. How about trying out this recipe for poached eggs with pine-nut sauce, over at Pass the Garum.

Finding archaeological evidence to show who was eating  nutty foods like these in the Roman period is unfortunately not straight forward. The kernels are so soft, that they rarely survive charring. However, the pine nut shell does preserve well. So well in fact, that individual nutshells and whole cones have been recovered from many sites in the Roman world. The problem is, many of these finds are not from the typical domestic context – refuse pits, hearths, dumps of broken pottery and kitchen debris, but from offering pits in temples, cremations and alongside other “ritually deposited” items in wells.

To start off with the definite food finds, charred pine nuts have been found from military forts and major towns like Colchester and London in Roman Britain. A few rural dwellers in southern Britain were also eating pine nuts, such as those living on the Isle of Thanet, the small town at Springhead (both in Kent) and at Fullerton Villa in Hampshire. Pine nutshells are found at the same range of sites in north-western Europe. Over in Italy, pine nuts have been found amongst other food refuse (fig pips, grape pips, cereal grains) at Regio VI, Insula 1, Pompeii.

Pinus pinea kernels

Turning to the ritual finds, the most obvious examples are from temples. Intact stone pine cones were found in the Temple of Isis in Pompeii, the Carrawburgh Mithraeum on Hadrians Wall and the London Mithraeum. More often, broken up and charred remains of pine cones are found, such as at the Triangular Temple in Verulamium and the Temple of Isis in Mainz. These probably came from pine cones being used as incense or offerings to the gods. Pine nuts have also been identified from cremation burials, both in northern Italy and London.

Other finds of stone pine cones are more difficult to assign as “food” or “ritual” remains, and of course we know that there was no clear separation between these categories. For instance, at a Military annex at Orton’s Pasture in Staffordshire, broken up nutshells and bracts were found in a pit, which initially looked like the left overs from a tasty pine nut snack. However, the only pits to contain pine nuts (and also dates) were in one area of the enclosure, close to where an altar was deposited. Another example is an intact pine cone that was found in a waterhole at the edge of an enclosure at a rural farmstead outside Cirencester (Claydon Pike), but with very few artefacts to indicate how the pine cone got there. In contrast, amongst some Early Roman buildings at 1 Poultry (The City, London), several pine cones were found in and around a water tank, alongside other food waste (coriander seeds, grapes pips), but also a Venus figurine. Maybe this material was from ritualistic activities in the Walbrook valley?

Pine cone

Pine cone from Claydon Pike, near Cirencester – on display in the Corinium museum!

The special significance of stone pine cones is revealed through a wealth of material culture. The most obvious example is this Roman tombstone found near a fort in Cumbria. The tombstone was for a soldier’s daughter, and shows a women reclining on a dining couch. A pine cone is in the top right hand corner, as a symbol of rebirth. Replica pine cones made from terracotta have also been found at some sites in Roman Britain, such as at Roman villas at Rapsley (Surrey) and Witcombe (Gloucestershire). Pine cones also appear as steelyard weights, and on fountains.

Kirkby Thore tombstone.  Copyright British Musem.

Kirkby Thore tombstone. Copyright British Museum.

Beyond food and ritual offerings, literary evidence gives us another use of pine nuts – as aphrodisiacs. Galen suggested that taking a combination of almonds, honey and pine nut on three consecutive evenings would have the desired effect. The demand for pine cones, for ritual offerings, food and other uses, meant that they were traded across the empire. A first century BC shipwreck off of Toulon, southern France, contained 61 pine cones. At the other end of the empire, pine cones have been found at quarry settlements in the Eastern Desert of Egypt.

Next time you have pasta and pesto, take a moment to think about how pine nuts were used in the past.


Grocock, C.W. and Grainger, S. 2006. Apicius: a Critical Edition with an Introduction and an English Translation of the Latin Recipe Text. Tonnes: Prospect.

Lodwick, L. 2015. Identifying ritual deposition of plant remains: a case study of Stone Pine cones in Roman Britain, pp. 54-69. In Brindle, T., Allen, M., Durham, E. and Smith, A. TRAC 2014: Proceedings of the Twenty-Fourth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Mason, L. 2013. Pine. London: Reaktion Books.

Mutke, S. et al. 2012. Mediterranean Stone Pine: botany and horticulture. Horticultural Review 39: 153-201.

No spelt, please, we’re Saxon

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


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

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

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


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

Spelt wheat

Spelt wheat 

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

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

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

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

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

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


Further reading

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

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


Picking up on pepper through archaeobotany

Black pepper is arguably one of the most iconic Roman flavourings. The ground spice is a common ingredient in the recipe book Apicius, even in sweet puddings, such as dulciaria – dates stuffed with pine nuts and ground pepper. Piper nigrum is a climbing vine which grows wild in the Western Ghats, a mountain range running down the west coast of India (Vaughan and Geissler 2009). Flowers grow on spikes, 4-8 cm long, and the dried fruit of each individual flower is what we call a peppercorn.

Piper nigrum growing in Goa, India

Pepper (Latin piper), is first mentioned in Greece in 400 BC, although this could refer to long pepper (Piper longum) rather than black pepper (Piper nigrum). Black pepper was imported to the Mediterranean from around 100 BC, when seafarers learnt how to use the Monsoon winds to sail to the west coast of India (Dalby 2003). The name piper appears to have been used for both long and black pepper in classical texts, but so far, only archaeobotanical evidence for black pepper has been found in the Roman world.

Classical sources tell us about the large extent of Roman trade in black pepper. Pepper was hoarded in the Horrea piperatoria – the imperially controlled pepper warehouse built by Domitian (or perhaps Vespasian). The Horrea piperatoria was situated next to the Templum Pacis in the Forum in Rome, and was destroyed by several fires. The Roman desire for pepper, discussed by Pliny (HN 12.4), meant much gold and silver coinage was sent to India in exchange for the spice (Pollard 2009). Other than food, black pepper was also an important ingredient in medicine, even used to treat impotence (Dalby 2002, p88-94).

Roman trading settlements in the Eastern desert of Egypt have produced many peppercorns, as they have been preserved by dessication – the very low levels of moisture stop the plant materials decaying. The study of the trading settlements at Quseir al-Qadim and Berenike on the Red Sea showed that the majority of peppercorns were found around the harbours themselves or in buildings linked with trade, rather than in domestic houses. Basically, black pepper was being transported through these settlements on the way to the Mediterranean, rather than originating from food waste (Van der Veen and Morales 2014).

Archaeobotanical analysis is starting to show how popular black pepper was in Roman Italy. Mineralised black peppercorns have been found from the Cardo V sewer in Herculaneum (Rowan 2014), and are likely to be recorded at more settlements as sampling for plant remains is undertaken more widely. In Roman London, probably one of the most intensively archaeobotanically sampled towns in the Roman world, black pepper has been found from just a few excavations (Cowan et al. 2009, p. 102). These include peppercorns amongst material thought to originate from a cremation, where they may have been funerary offerings, and and also from a site in Southwark, the trading and administrative area of Roman London to the south of the River Thames.

Black pepper has been found more widely in north-western Europe, but Livarda has found that half of these finds are from military sites (Livarda 2011). Two specific finds connect the military with black pepper. First, peppercorns were found in the latrine of a centurion at the fort at Oberaden, north-west Germany. Second, at the fort of Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall, a writing tablet includes pepper in a list of foodstuffs and other goods required by soldiers – the tablet can be seen online here.

Black (unripe) and white (ripe) peppercorns

So was black pepper really so rare in north-western Europe? A key problem in figuring this out is preservation. The Hoxne ‘Empress’ pepper pot was found in a hoard in Suffolk (east England) containing 15,000+ coins, pieces of jewellery and and items of tableware (read more here). Based on the coin evidence, the hoard was buried after AD 407/8, meaning around this time, someone in Suffolk was using black pepper at the dinner table! The piperatorium was used for ground pepper, which would have hardly any chance of surviving and being found by modern archaeobotanists.

So, the picture so far: large quantities of black pepper were traded from India to Roman Italy via  Egypt, consumed quite often in Roman Italy according to literary sources, but only eaten by the military and high status people in the north-western provinces. Yet the use of ground pepper, means a lot of pepper consumption would leave no archaeobotanical trace!

The Hoxne ‘Empress’ pepper pot © The Trustees of the British Museum


Cowan, C., Seeley, F., & Wardle, A. (2009). Roman Southwark, Settlement and Economy: Excavations in Southwark, 1973-91. Museum of London Archaeology.

Dalby, A. (2002). Dangerous Tastes: the Story of Spices. London: British Museum Press.

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

Livarda, A. (2011). Spicing up life in northwestern Europe: exotic food plant imports in the Roman and medieval world. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, 20, 143–164.

Pollard, E. A. (2009). Pliny’s Natural History and the Flavian Templum Pacis: botanical imperialism in first-century C.E. Rome. Journal of World History, 20 (3), 309–338.

Rowan, E. (2014). Roman Diet and Nutrition in the Vesuvian Region: a Study of the Bioarchaeological Remains from the Cardo V sewer at Herculaneum. Unpublished DPhil thesis, University of Oxford.

Van der Veen, M., & Morales, J. (2014). The Roman and Islamic spice trade: New archaeological evidence. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2014.09.036

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.

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.

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: