One of Peopling the Past’s goals is to amplify the work of young and/or under-represented scholars and the amazing research that they are doing to add new perspectives to the fields of ancient history and archaeology (broadly construed). We will thus feature several blog posts throughout the year interviewing graduate students on their research topics, focusing on how they shed light on real people in the past.
What topic do you study?
I am a PhD Student at the University of Bristol in the Classics program, and my research focuses on culture and foodways of the poor in Roman Italy. More specifically, I am investigating the use of wild plants by the poor.
There are many problems in the way that information about food in Roman Italy is typically collected and transmitted. My primary concerns are biases in texts and archaeology. The elite bias in texts ensures that any mention of food during Roman times almost always included lavish dinner parties with meat, exotic spices such as pepper, and cereals. Isotopic and literary evidence shows that meat was a small component of the Mediterranean diet, and smaller still for the poor (Prowse et al., 2005). Spices were imported and expensive, and thus likely inaccessible for the poor.
On top of this, there is an elite bias in archaeology: the tendency to favour the excavation of sites with large villas and extensive gardens instead of smaller sites with poorer material culture. There are hundreds upon hundreds of un-excavated smaller sites in Italy that have been identified with landscape surveys which could hold valuable information about poorer ancient people but are deemed unimportant by researchers and funding bodies. In the township of Cinigiano, Tuscany alone, the Roman Peasant Project identified 500 or so small sites, but they were only able to excavate eight before the project came to an end in 2014.
There is also a preservation bias in archaeobotanical remains themselves, mostly pertaining to cereals. Cereals are commonly found in the archaeological record, yet it is not necessarily because they were used more than other plants, but because they are preserved better. Cereals need a lot of land to grow only a small amount of edible product. Very little of the cereal plant is consumed, so there is a lot of waste that is preserved by desiccation, charring, and burning. On top of that, cereals were difficult to process and turn into something edible, particularly compared to plants like beets or turnips. These types of plants are rarely found in the archaeological record because the entire plant is edible, leaving behind only tiny seeds; yet they grew wild in Roman Italy, and are frequently mentioned as common foods by ancient authors. This over-representation of grain underplays the importance of other vegetation in the diet.
What sources or data do you use?
The Roman Peasant Project’s work and publications have been very helpful thus far regarding what to look for in our data sources, primarily how to identify the homesteads of the poor. It has been theorized that sites which have been used by the poor had smaller houses, barns, and outbuildings, and were materially poor. From these types of sites, I am looking at the archaeological finds such as cooking implements, pots, and storage vessels, as well as archaeobotanical remains such as preserved seeds, pollen grains, charred plant remains, and residue from cooking pots and storage vessels. These things can tell us what plants were present at any given time or location, and sometimes how they might have been used, cooked, and stored.
However, this archaeological data alone cannot tell us everything we need to know about foodways of the poor. We also need information from our ancient authors, and although few of them were poor themselves, some of them enjoyed living simply, and held a lot of knowledge about cultivation and usage of native plants for food, medicine, and tools. Cato’s De Agricultura, Columella’s Res Rustica, Livy’s Ab urbe condita, Palladius’ Opus Agriculturae, and Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia are all wonderful sources to fill in what archaeology cannot tell us about plants. They can tell us what certain plants were used for, how they were prepared, who consumed them and how often, whether cultivated or wild varieties were favoured, and so on.
I also plan on exploring cultural transmission of foodways of poorer groups in modern Italy as part of my doctoral work. Growing up poor myself and seeing the “old ways” of my European grandparents and great grandparents, I could not help but see the similarities between modern and ancient ways of food preparation, wine making, foraging, herbal medicine making, and so on. It occurred to me that the importance of wild plants to the poor of Roman Italy may be argued further when one considers the use of these resources among modern cultures in Italy. Wild plants, which includes both native and naturalized taxa, have been utilized in the Mediterranean diet for millennia, and recent literature has begun to focus on its importance in the past and in present day culture.
Cucina povera (poor kitchen), is an Italian phrase that is used today and in yesteryears to describe simple, rural cooking made from locally available ingredients. In Sicily, wild vegetables that were commonly grown in antiquity still play a key part in lunch or dinner meals or for special holiday preparations. Beta vulgaris (beet) leaves are served with fava bean puree in the autumn, wild thistles are fried in batter on Christmas night, and the shoots of Asphodeline lutea are added to omelettes in spring (Geraci et al. 2018). This could be a potential way to gain insights about the past, as poorer groups of people – and especially rural people – seem to be able to hold onto their traditions far longer than other groups of people.
How does this research shed light on real people in the past?
A lot of what we know about Roman Italy concerns only a small portion of the population (the upper class), yet the biggest segment of the population was poor – whether they were the poor who were constantly in search for food and shelter, or the temporarily poor who were artisans, shopkeepers, or seasonal workers, but could fall into poverty at times (Garnsey, 1998). The goal of my research is to gain a more holistic view of Roman Society, and that includes not only Cives Romani (Roman citizens), but non-citizens such as slaves, Latini (early inhabitants of the city of Rome), Socii (confederates of Rome), Peregrini (free inhabitants of the Empire), and Provinciales (people from the Roman provinces with only basic rights).
New archaeological findings have indicated that the poor in Roman Italy may not have resided in only a single small dwelling but had dispersed clusters of small buildings including the main home, outbuildings, animal pens, and preparation huts (Bowes 2020). These newly excavated sites have also uncovered a communal wine press, wine storage amphorae, and a wine tank, pointing to the possibility of local wine production and perhaps wine exportation.
One of the sites excavated by the Roman Peasant Project even yielded evidence of a proximate garden including flowers such as lilac, geranium, and bellflowers, herbs like sage, rue, and mint, and vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, celery, and radish. Evidence of legumes such as broad beans and lentils were found at two sites. Most of the sites had pollen of hazelnut, chestnut, blackberry, raspberry, wild cherry dogwood, and plum, which may have been cultivated or growing in the small woods/fields nearby (Arnoldus, 2020).
By looking at old archaeological data with a new lens, and looking at new archaeological sites that match our criteria for a poor homestead, we can get a much richer picture of what the lives of the poor may have looked like. I am only just cracking the surface of my project, and yet the data that I am compiling suggests a diverse and busy life, with a robust and wholesome selection of wild and cultivated plants for consumption.
Arnoldus, Antonia, et al. “Agriculture and Land Use.” The Roman Peasant Project 2009-2014: Excavating the Roman Rural Poor, edited by Kim Bowes, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020, pp. 471–516, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv18dvvqq.22.
Bowes, Kim. “Introduction: Inventing Roman Peasants.” The Roman Peasant Project 2009-2014: Excavating the Roman Rural Poor, edited by Kim Bowes, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020, pp. 1–18, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv18dvvqq.8.
Garnsey, P., 1998. Mass Diet and Nutrition in the City of Rome. Cities, Peasants, and Food. In W. Scheidel ed. 1998. Classical Antiquity: Essays in Social and Economic History. Cambridge University Press. pp. 226-252.
Geraci, Anna, et al. “The Wild Taxa Utilized as Vegetables in Sicily (Italy): A Traditional Component of the Mediterranean Diet.” Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, vol. 14, no. 14, 2018, pp. 1-27.
Prowse, Tracy L., et al. “Isotopic Evidence for Age-Related Variation in Diet from Isola Sacra, Italy.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology, vol. 128, no. 1, 2005, pp. 2-13.
Bauer, Brittany. “Bottle Gourd as an Implement for the Poor in Roman Italy.” EXARC Journal, EXARC, 25 May 2020, https://exarc.net/issue-2020-2/at/bottle-gourd-implement-poor-roman-italy.
Bauer, Brittany. “Diet of the Poor in Roman Italy: An Exploration of Wild and Cultivated Plants as an Essential Dietary Component.” EXARC Journal, EXARC, 25 May 2020, https://exarc.net/issue-2020-2/at/diet-poor-roman-italyhttps://exarc.net/issue-2020-2/at/bottle-gourd-implement-poor-roman-italy.
Brittany is a PhD student at the University of Bristol, doing her work remotely while still living in her hometown of Winnipeg. She has an MA in Cultural Studies, BAH in Classics, and BA in Environmental Studies from the University of Winnipeg. Her work primarily focuses on underrepresented aspects of classical scholarship such as the lives of queer women and the poor. Her research interests include recreating foodways and pathways of the poor in Roman Italy via ethnoarchaeology and experimental archaeology. She uses traditional techniques to make cordage from plants, bottle gourd implements, and herbal remedies as part of her research, but also to carry on traditions from her own family and culture.