Archaeology of food

Vessels of Poggio Civitate

Archaeologists continue to make fascinating discoveries regarding ancient foodways, and it is particularly exciting to see the younger generation involved in this research. Among the highlights of the recent meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Toronto were two posters presented by young scholars: 

Andrew Carroll gave a lesson in Etruscan cheese-making with his theory that some curious perforated ceramic vessels from Poggio Civitate (Murlo, Italy) were for heating milk to make cheese.  Found more than 30 years ago, these vessels had been interpreted as flower pots! Poggio Civitate is the findspot as well of numerous sheep bones, suggesting that the cheese was an early pecorino.  

At the other end of the food production spectrum, Caroline Cheung and Gina Tibbott’s poster focused on the repair of dolia, the Roman storage vessels for a variety of foodstuffs both solid and liquid including wine, oil, grain, and fish sauce. These massive, heavy vessels were obviously so expensive that if it was worth repairing their cracks with lead tenons and staples.  

A few things travelers should know about Rome

Illustration by Meagan Morrison

Illustration by Meagan Morrison

Condé Nast Traveler this week emailed “5 Common Mistakes Travelers Make in Rome.” The illustrations were charming, and the basic concepts valid, but we feel there’s more to these five items that travelers need to know. Read the article, then read our additions and comments.

There is no such thing as coffee to-go in Italy, and there‘s an unwritten rule of no milk in your coffee past noon.

Actually, there is coffee to go. While it might be put in a paper or plastic cup, it’s more likely to be served in its usual cup or glass on a tray, which you will return to the bar later.

Alternatively, the coffee might be poured into a small disposable glass bottle that once contained fruit juice. It is definitely true that carrying paper trays with gigantic cups with plastic lids is completely alien.

As for milk after noon, relax, people. Cappuccino is usually consumed at breakfast, and never directly after a meal, being considered bad for the digestion. Don’t ask why gelato and tiramisù are not worse. But if you want a cappuccino between meals, even at 3 pm, go right ahead. 

When it comes to dressing in Rome, fit is king.

What is true is that many Romans, men and women both, can dress impeccably on a hot summer’s day and never seem to break a sweat. And, generally speaking, they avoid the unmade-bed look so dear to other nationalities—unless that happens to be the fashion of the moment. They also regard many foreigners as sort of shabby (they may secretly love their comfy old shoes, but that doesn’t mean they wear them in public). But what travelers need to know is that Rome is a pretty casual city; very few restaurants would dream of suggesting, much less enforcing, a dress code, and the day is not far away when all those gorgeous silk ties will hang on Christmas trees, not gentlemen’s necks.

Air kissing. Yes, there’s a lot of it, but there’s plenty of hand-shaking too.

While the etiquette manuals would always have the lady initiate the air kiss, our experience is the opposite. What there isn’t is a lot of hugging except among friends and relatives.

Most Italians don’t eat an antipasto, primo, secondo, and dolce at every meal—and you don’t have to, either.

That’s good advice, but we’d take it further. In our experience travelers tend to plan too many meals in an effort not to miss anything. One good lunch or dinner a day is plenty. Bars, tavole calde, gelaterie, and markets are perfect for meal alternatives. But that one meal should, as a rule, consist of two, three, or four courses. And all-day snacking is unheard of.

Driving scooters—and driving in general—is not for the faint of heart. The style is aggressive. 

The article is right that pedestrians need to cross the street with a certain attitude. The most important thing is, once you start across the street, maintain a steady pace. The oncoming driver is planning how to avoid impact, so you don’t want to screw up his calculations.

And beware: even if the cars stop to let you cross (they do once in a while …), there may still be a scooter barreling down. Riding scooters is risky enough for experienced Italians, foolhardy and seriously dangerous for anybody else.

Finally, the Italian driving style emphasizes maneuverability; don’t mistake skill for aggression.


Archaeology of food at AIA

Elifant found much of interest in the Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America Archaeology of food at held last week in New Orleans. 

Some highlights:

  • With the help of GIS, the Pompeii Food and Drink Project  has plotted the bakeries of Pompeii.  They have determined that the average Pompeian was no more than a 2-minute walk from a bakery.  While clearly providing a dietary staple, these bakeries must still have been competitive with one another and provided the locals with a range of options.

  • Notwithstanding the easy availability of bread, it appears that poor Italians ate a wider variety of foodstuffs than previously imagined.  And they ate more animal-based protein than imagined.  Pork was prominent on the menu, along with chicken, fish, and shellfish; little beef was consumed. 

  • The Pompeii Archaeological Research Project: Porta Stabiae continues to explore the patterns of food production and consumption of an important non-elite sector of the town.  Some of you will remember that a highlight of last year’s meeting was the report by director Steven Ellis on the excavation’s discovery of a giraffe bone—was this an animal slaughtered in the arena and then eaten for dinner?

  • From Bronze Age frying pans to Roman grinding stones for grain, ancient Mediterranean peoples displayed their ethnic roots and social status by the way they cooked and consumed food.  It seems a cliché, but it remains very much true that “we are what we eat.” And as a corollary, studying ancient food and “foodways” provides an unparalleled insight into that culture. 

Giant reservoir found in Rome

Archaeologists digging the new Metro C (subway) line have just made the surprising discovery of a huge reservoir that irrigated a farm and orchard near the present-day Basilica of St. John Lateran.  

Who would imagine that a sprawling fruit orchard once lay in the heart of old Rome? Archaeologists digging the new Metro C (subway) line have just made the surprising discovery of a huge reservoir that irrigated a farm and orchard near the present-day Basilica of St. John Lateran.  Lest there be any doubt about the basin’s original purpose, the remains of a pitchfork and baskets confirm the structure’s agricultural function.

What were they growing? Probably greens, a staple of the Roman diet, but leave little trace in the archaeological record. In addition, the discovery of numerous peach pits would seem to indicate the presence of an orchard where this succulent fruit was cultivated. Once imported from Syria, it was clearly more commonplace on the Roman table by the first century CE, when the reservoir was built. 

For great photos and more information, click here.


Cato’s libum (recipe)

libum IMGP1919.jpg

If you’ve always wanted to try cooking some ancient Roman dishes but couldn’t find a source of flamingo tongues on the Internet, rewind. Such exotica were scarcely the norm. Rather, today’s locavore, farm-to-table proponents would be right at home with the basic Roman diet of legumes, whole grains, wild greens, and fresh cheeses. 

Here’s a simple, surprisingly good recipe to start with, a bread made with fresh cheese (here ricotta) and flour (farro’s the best) and baked on bay leaves. It is provided by Cato the Elder, no less, in his treatise on agriculture. 

Make the libum bite-sized for cocktails or divide the dough into just two parts to make small loaves you can slice.


  • 14 ounces good ricotta or any fresh cheese, preferably unpasteurized (ricotta should always be drained overnight in a colander)
  • 4 ounces (approx) flour, preferably farro
  • 1 large egg
  • pinch salt
  • several bay leaves, preferably fresh
  • olive oil, for the pan
  • Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C.

If you are going to make loaves, line a baking pan or sheet with bay leaves and brush them lightly with olive oil. If you don't have enough leaves to cover the surface, use parchment and distribute the leaves as best you can. 

If you are going to make individual cocktail-sized libum, brush the leaves with oil (you will need one for each piece), and set aside.

Knead all the ingredients (except the bay leaves) until well blended. Add more flour if the dough seems sticky. 

Shape into a loaf, or 2 loaves, or 3 or 4 mini-loves Alternatively, pinch off pieces of dough and roll them with hands into the size and shape of a large olive. Place each one on top of a bay leaf and put it in the baking pan.

Bake for about 30 minutes or until firm and light golden brown. Keep your eye on them, because the baking time will depend on the size of your libum (of course).


And now, the gladiator diet

A gladiator cemetery at Ephesus (Turkey) has yielded evidence that at least the gladiators buried there ate a diet of beans and grains, with little or no meat, and drank a restorative potion made from plant ash. Researchers from the Medical University of Vienna and the Department of Anthropology, Institute of Forensic Medicine, University of Bern, analyzed the gladiators' bones using spectroscopy to determine their strontium-to-calcium ratio. The result suggests that gladiators really did have a post-workout health drink, as ancient sources state.

The only ancient literary source the news reports of the study name is Pliny the Elder, who quotes Varro as suggesting ash for stomach pains and bruises and continues that gladiators drink something made of ashes, but till we've lain hands on the Latin text, we'll say no more, except that if you read on, Pliny develops the hearth theme to describe the extraordinary conception of Servius Tullius (Natural History 36.203-204). Never a dull moment with Pliny the Elder.

Here are some links to the gladiator bone study reports:

Science Daily
The Week
Past Horizons
Powered by Osteons

The author of this blog, Kristina Killgrove, a bioarchaeologist, discusses the reports and points out something that struck us too. One set of female bones was found among the gladiators. Why did the investigators automatically assume she was not a gladiator too?