Everyone loves to know what the Romans ate, but do people really know where the Romans’ food came from? For my Tuesday Times Table, I decided to focus on Roman butchery and hunting practices therefore many of my handling objects were in fact the excess or ‘off cuts’ of Roman food products.
The table layout itself followed the basic process of Roman food production, from hunting depictions on samian pottery, through butchered bone and marine products and then concluded with Roman cookware.
The three pieces of samian were excavated during the Spa excavations (1998) and on all of them are images of hunting. The first dates to AD 80-110 and originates from Southern Gaul (modern day France), and features the rear of a boar. The second piece is from Central Gaul, and dates to AD 125-150, and depicts an image of a panther being attacked by a hunter. The third piece is also from Central Gaul and dates to AD 160-190, and has two deer running towards the right. The interesting thing about these pieces of samian is that two of them (the boar and the deer) depict images of species eaten by the Romans, but the panther sherd shows an animal not indigenous to the UK, especially Aquae Sulis (Roman Bath) and therefore shows that hunting was a recreational sport, rather than a necessity to produce food.
The butchered animal bone was next on the table. It featured bone from cow (Bos), pig (Sus), sheep (Ovis) and rabbit (Lepus). The majority of the bone shown was from the Spa excavations, and then I also chose three cow bones, a cervical vertebra, a knuckle bone and a long bone, from the Hat and Feather site excavation Bath, of 1992. Almost all of the bone showed evidence of ‘chop’ marks on the distal and proximal ends of the bone, which take the form of a deep ‘V’ shape, suggesting that the bone was cut for butchery purposes with a cleaver or large knife, due to the location of the cut. However one piece of cow long bone and been ‘carved’ parallel to the bone, and this would suggest evidence for the consumption of bone marrow in Aquae Sulis.
The evidence of seafood at the Spa site was extremely high. A multitude of mussel and oyster shells were found, probably originating from the South-East coast of England, along with 257 remains of fish bone, both freshwater and marine. This interestingly suggests the evidence for trade, not only across England, but also across the Mediterranean. It is likely that these marine fish (mainly sea bass) were transported in large amphorae (a large jar with handles) from different areas of the Roman Empire. Snail shells were also found in abundance from the site, and the combination of all of these food types suggests that Roman delicacies were not too different to those we eat today.
I also wanted to display evidence for Roman cookware to allow the public to gain a concept of the process of Roman food products. From the Spa site was found a white flagon sherd with a rimmed neck, that would have held wine; a strainer spout, that would have been used to strain either food or infused drinks and a sherd of mortarium (used for grinding and mixing herbs) in which all of its stone inclusions had been worn down, creating a smooth surface, clearly showing evidence of high usage in the period. I thought that it was also useful to display a replica samian ware bowl and replica mortarium in which people could try grinding and crushing rosemary and black pepper corns in the same way that it was required to for nearly every Roman meal.
This Tuesday Times Table allowed me to research a topic that I had not encountered previously, and also meant that I was able to give a flavour of Roman lifestyle and food preparation that is not commonly thought about by many.
Roman Society Placement and student at the University of Reading studying Archaeology and Ancient History.