Evidence for Roman eating and drinking from the Mola database

I’ve blogged before on the Food for Thought blog: (https://notjustdormice.wordpress.com/2015/01/09/evidence-for-roman-eating-and-drinking-from-the-mola-database/ ) about my ongoing PhD research into “Big Data” and evidence for Roman food recovered during developer-funded archaeological work in England, as part of the EngLaId Project, and I thought I’d post a quick update now, as I’ve recently come into possession of an amazing new data-set courtesy of Museum of London Archaeology (Mola) and the excellent archaeologists who work there, including particularly Karen Stewart.

I think it’s fair to say that the database produced by developer-funded archaeological work in England is still an under-used resource, particularly in academia and the reasons for this are no doubt varied and complex. There is no space in a short blog to go into these reasons in depth; however, I think that among the main reasons is the fragmented nature of the sector, with many different organisations carrying out the work, and particularly the reliance on freelance specialists to carry out much of the finds specialist work upon which our knowledge of eating and drinking in the past relies. One consequence of this fragmentation is the great diversity of ways in which digital data is stored and managed, with specialists often tailoring their finds databases to the needs of individual projects.

At Mola though, things are a little different. Again the reasons may be complex and, I suspect, relate to the scale and complexity of the organisation, but at Mola all finds, and indeed context data is stored in a single database that includes information on all of the different finds recovered from at least 11,000 sites, some of which were excavated as long ago as 1915. The result is an incredibly flexible tool for research, which has already been used to do some fantastic work on food, including a study of the fishing industry and fish consumption in medieval London (Orton et al. 2014), which makes use of anatomical data and detailed chronological information to link changes in the nature of commercial fishing to changes in the anatomical elements present in deposits of cod remains.

The data that I’ve extracted from the Mola database relates to the period between 1500BC and AD1086 (the period covered by the EngLaId project) which covers the long period between the first wide spread permanent settlement and the origins of the modern settlement pattern. These data falls into four main categories: context data, ceramics, animal bones and charred plant remains and the idea is to plot changes in these data, both chronologically and spatially using GIS and to see (among other things) whether data analysed on this scale changes our understanding of Roman food consumption and particularly what was carried over from the Iron Age and what continued into the early medieval period. I haven’t yet crunched the numbers in a sufficiently detailed way to report on my analysis – but when I have I’ll be posting another blog to let everybody know how it went. Hopefully, the results will be interesting!

Figure 1: Distribution of Mola Sites



Orton, D C, Morris, J, Locker, A, and Barrett, J H, 2014 Fish for the city: meta analysis of archaeological cod remains and the growth of London’s northern trade, Antiquity, 88, 516-30.


Medieval Master Chef in Istanbul (Dan Stansbie)

I’ve recently been lucky enough to have enjoyed a trip to Istanbul, along with colleagues from the EngLaId project (https://englaid.wordpress.com) to present a paper at a session comparing eastern cuisine and western food customs (http://www.pomedor.mom.fr/meetings/content/80) in the middle ages at the annual European Association of Archaeologists conference (http://www.eaa2014istanbul.org/site), courtesy of the Meyerstein Fund at the University of Oxford.

The conference itself was an enormous event attracting approximately 3000 archaeologists from all over the world and taking over the buildings of Istanbul Technical University almost entirely. Sessions ranged over every archaeological topic imaginable from the Paleolithic to Heritage Management, and outside of the main business of the conference delegates were treated to a reception in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum and the gardens of Topkapi Palace and a party on a platform at Sirkeci train station.

The session at which I spoke was brilliantly organised by Joanita Vroom, Roos van Oosten (both of Leiden University) and Yona Waksman (of Laboratoire Archéomérie at Archéologie at the University of Lyon). The scope of the session was eating habits and food practices in medieval Europe using different approaches, with a particular focus on linking “cooking revolutions” to changing pottery shapes, food customs, dietary practices and house transformations. The session organisers were very reassuring to the relatively inexperienced PhD students like me, and a succession of useful papers discussing evidence for eating and drinking from a variety of medieval contexts including Islamic Iberia and post-reformation nunneries in Modena ensued. A particular highlight of the session for me was Roos van Oosten’s paper on the relationship of the shape of medieval pots from the Low Countries to other aspects of contemporary material culture, such as types of fuel used and the placement of hearths within buildings.

My own paper was essentially a version of research which I’ve previously blogged about for Food For Thought under ‘”Big Data” and Food in Roman Britain” and so I won’t go into it in detail here; except to say that I focused on changes in eating and drinking from late Roman to early medieval England in order to make the research relevant to the themes of the session. I also used my paper to showcase a new case study using the site of Yarnton in the Upper Thames Valley. In this case study my argument is that changes in domestic architecture at Yarnton from the late Roman to middle Saxon period may be linked to changes in food; specifically that the adoption of halls in the middle Saxon period may reflect a shift to more communally oriented forms of ceramic and therefore more communal eating habits.

Outside of the conference much fun was had by the EngLaId team. We got to know the streets of Istanbul, looked after a cat named Morris, consumed the local street food, including the tremendous fish sandwiches from the boats at Eminonu pier, met up with old friends and attempted (unsuccessfully) to track down the elusive Dr Joy (of Cambridge University) through the bars and back street kebab houses around Taksim Square.

Members of the EngLaId team exploring the Theodosian walls