Eating and Drinking in Roman Britain

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Roman Food Facts & Worksheets

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Martin Pitts. It is perhaps unique as a sphere of social life that is comparatively well served by both written sources and material D evidence, whilst simultaneously lacking much in the way of integration between archae- ological and historical approaches. Whilst food and its assorted remains and accoutrements have always featured promi- O nently in the archaeology of Iron Age Europe, it has rarely been studied as a discrete topic, which is surprising given the comparative wealth of archaeological and historical C studies of Roman food Alcock, ; Cool, ; Garnsey, In view of these trends, this chapter addresses the potential of the study of food to illuminate a range of important themes for A Companion to Food in the Ancient World, First Edition.

Edited by John Wilkins and Robin Nadeau. This observation is compounded by the variable intensity of O archaeological fieldwork and the quality of the zooarchaeological and archaeobotanical records across northern Europe, which are differentially affected by regional soil condi- PR tions, the depth of burial, the type of archaeological feature e.


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Although localized variations in fieldwork, taphonomy, and climatic conditions are common, some regional generalizations can nevertheless be made. In the British Iron Age, spelt wheat Triticum spelta was most prevalent, being characterized by its ability to grow on a range of soil types, hardiness in EC cold weather, and resistance to pests and diseases, taking over in importance from emmer wheat Triticum dicoccum , which had been previously favored in the Bronze Age and Neolithic periods Jones, Oats Avena were first grown wild in the Iron Age, but soon became cultivated, N whereas evidence for rye Secale cereale is scarcer and typically dates to the end of the period Jones, ; Alcock, As with the faunal evidence, where botanical U analyses have been conducted the southern British oppida large enclosed settlements with some urban characteristics are distinguished from other Iron Age sites through evidence of wider trade networks.

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For example, the presence at Silchester of the weed Agrostemma githago, which is associated with Mediterranean cereals, points towards the importation of cereal crops from continental Europe in the early phases of the site. Evidence for meat consumption in the Iron Age largely comes from excavated assem- blages of animal bones, which in Britain are typically dominated by the major domestic species of cattle, sheep, pig, horse, and dog, of which cattle and sheep are by far the most common.

Camulodunum — modern Colchester — and Calleva Atrebatum — modern Silchester , and other contemporary sites with strong continental European links such as Skeleton Green, Hertfordshire Pitts, For the exploitation of marine and freshwater resources, the review by Dobney and Ervynck of the evi- dence for fishing in the North Sea area highlights several discrepant trends.

H.E.M. Cool (Author of Eating and Drinking in Roman Britain)

Despite the R introduction of improved methods for retrieving fish bones in recent years, Iron Age sites in Britain are notorious for their lack of evidence for fish consumption, suggesting R that such an absence was a matter of cultural choice. In contrast, in the Netherlands there is much wider C evidence for the exploitation of fish in the Iron Age both marine and freshwater , underlining the diversity in dietary practices in the wider region.

Similarly, oppida sites N again stand out from their respective local trends, with evidence for the importation of Spanish mackerel at Skeleton Green Britain , and Mediterranean albacore tuna at the U Titelberg Luxembourg , highlighting the broader cultural links of such settlements with the Roman world.


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Whilst differences between Britain and the near Continent in the consumption of fish, poultry, and wild animals may be dismissed as a minor regional variation, recent research suggests that such discrepancies have deeper cultural meaning. In contrast, although rarely consumed for meat on Iron Age settlements, wild animals and birds were the most likely species to be treated in this ritualized fashion as ABGs. Hill suggests that such distinctions reflected aspects of Iron Age cosmological understandings of the boundary between culture and nature, with the special treatment of wild animals and to a lesser extent horses and dogs hinting at a reverence for nature that may have included prohibitions on their everyday consumption as food.

Although FS hunting and fishing evidently played a very minor role in the diet of Iron Age Wessex, it is likely that such activities were probably governed by cultural restrictions determining the special occasions on which the consumption or sacrifice of wild animals could be O permissible.

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A good example comes from Diodurus of Sicily — based on the original reports of Posidonius, who visited Gaul in the R 90s bc — Woolf, , 49 , who stated O the Gauls are exceedingly addicted to the use of wine and fill themselves with the wine which is brought to their country by merchants, drinking it unmixed, and since they partake of this C drink without moderation by reason of their craving for it, when they are drunken they fall into a stupor or a state of madness 5. However, it soon became apparent that the quantities of wine amphorae entering northern Gaul were insufficient to support an elite C class Haselgrove, , —75 , where imports massively exceeded the numbers entering Britain, so the concept of prestige goods fell out of fashion.

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N Instead of viewing wine as the root cause of social change in parts of late Iron Age Britain, the current orthodoxy regards the limited numbers of wine amphorae entering U the region as symptomatic of wider changes in society Hill, Indeed, analysis of pottery assemblages from southern Britain shows an increasing preoccupation with drinking from c. The high prevalence of drinking accoutrements in funerary contexts relative to settlements Hill, ; Pitts, certainly implies that alcohol consumption was an important dimension of aspects of ritual practice, not least in the construction of individual and group identities.

Similarly, the Roman period marks a shift in the butchery of animals from using O knives to cleavers, maximizing the amount of meat to be obtained from a carcass Maltby, , , ; Cool, , For example, although Roman material culture associated with eating and drinking e.