Blog Post #47: Pots, People, and Foodways in Roman Republican Italy with Dr. Laura Banducci

In February we’re cooking up a food-and-drink-themed blog series for you, featuring scholars who study eating and drinking culture in the ancient world from a variety of avenues, from texts to pottery to experimental archaeology.

My name is Laura Banducci and I’m a Roman archaeologist. My research focuses on the use and re-use of everyday objects, especially pottery. I’m interested in how we can use the study of these objects, some of which weren’t given much careful attention by early Roman archaeologists, to comment on broader societal values and processes.  

What’s an example of using everyday objects to learn about past societies?  

Pottery is the most ubiquitous material on archaeological sites in the Mediterranean. Pots served most cooking and eating needs and in the Greek and Roman periods they were produced with specially chosen clay and fired at high temperatures by specialized craftspeople. As a result, even though pots break, the fragments never really go away once they’ve been buried. The sheer quantity of all those sherds of pottery made me want to find a way to make the sherds speak for the people who used them.

My approach started by asking a very simple question: “how were vessels in the ancient world used?” If the most general answer is “pottery was used to contain, prepare, and serve food,” my next question was, “how can we use pottery to investigate how people cooked, how they ate, and even what they ate?”  

An ancient cooking vessel with one handle sits on a table top. Some pieces of the vessel are missing.
Fig. 1 A one-handled cooking vessel from the site of Musarna (near Viterbo, Italy). The black soot on one side of the vessel reveals which side faced the cooking fire. Photo: L. Banducci

The goal of my 2021 book Foodways in Roman Republican Italy was to examine pottery to better understand how/what/with whom people cooked and ate – the study of this is sometimes referred to as “foodways” (it is useful to have one word to refer to these inter-related activities).

Foodways typically reflect aspects of identity. You may prepare or eat foods in a certain way because of your family background, your social status, or your financial means. You may prepare or eat certain foods because of a religious affiliation or special event. You may eat one way behind closed doors with only family present, and another way when hosting people you don’t live with. 

In places of cultural conflict or change, the study of foodways provides a valuable way to consider how people’s daily behaviours reflect new political circumstances – whether people change how they eat because they’re trying to impress their new rulers or because their local landscape or access to foods has changed. Conversely, foodways of individual households may remain very consistent despite major changes taking place outside the home.   

I have always been interested in the effects of Roman expansion across the Italian peninsula: how the city of Rome took over the many flourishing ancient towns in Italy before moving on to conquer the Mediterranean. Ultimately, my book explores the foodways of people in three towns in central Italy over the period when Rome took over and consolidated its power (from about 3rd BCE to the 1st century CE). The experiences of every town were a bit different: in some cases, there were changes in the way that foods were prepared, the quantities prepared at a given time, or how food was served. The type and extent of these changes reflect both the status of each town before the Roman conquest as well as how the town fared after the Romans arrived.  

How do you get insight from pottery – what are the techniques? 

I apply a range of analytical methods to ancient vessels – but one particularly important one is called use wear analysis. Cooking and eating are inherently repetitive activities – done multiple times a day, every day. The repetition means that patterns of wear develop on pottery. Use wear analysis involves examining the surfaces of pots for traces of abrasion and the accretion of residues. The surface of a vessel could be abraded from tool use (like the repetitive stirring of a pot) or because of everyday knocking or stacking. Patterns of abrasion can reveal if ancient users were stirring a semi-liquid food (like porridge) frequently or vigorously. It can show if they were frequently cutting on a plate, like slicing or chopping pieces of meat or vegetable. 

Part of a black gloss plate is displayed. It has several scratches in it, showing where utensils were used.
Fig. 2 A black gloss plate from the site of Musarna (near Viterbo, Italy) with scratches cutting through its decorative black surface. Plates frequently have scratches from utensils like this. Photo: L. Banducci 

A common example of the accretion of residues on a vessel occurs when it was used with a cooking fire. An ancient cooking pot used over a charcoal or wood fire acquired layers of soot from the burning fuel. This soot was absorbed into the pores of the vessel and caked on its exterior – even centuries of burial in the ground do not erase this blackened discoloration. Char on the interior of vessels is a different source of information. Patches of charred food from over-boiling or the cooking fire being too close or hot, remain on the inside of some cooking pots. Blackening residues reveal the location of the cooking vessel relative to the cooking fire and the manner of cooking, and in some cases, can even yield details about the type of food being cooked.  

The study of the patterning of traces of wear can help narrow down the repetitive behaviours of ancient cooks. Who were these cooks? The literary and visual evidence from the Roman world suggests that they were mostly women and mostly slaves, even in the poorest households.  

The author, students, and staff stand around an outdoor lab table in the shade with some archaeological finds.
Fig. 3 Laura with students and staff in the finds lab at Gabii (near Rome, Italy). Photo: E. Jenkinson 
What is the next phase of your work? 

My ongoing fieldwork involves co-ordinating the study of the artefacts at the excavations of the town of Gabii, an ancient settlement just outside the city of Rome. Gabii was occupied for more than 1,000 years and is rich with artefacts: pottery from throughout the Roman world and many small finds (e.g. metal and bone tools, jewellery, coins). The sheer volume and range of objects to be organized and examined gives me the opportunity to collaborate with and learn from numerous artefact specialists. 

Archaeological finds are organised on a tabletop along with a laptop and soil colour charts.
Fig. 4 Data collection in the lab at the site of Cetamura del Chianti (near Siena, Italy). Photo: L. Banducci 

Recent and forthcoming research out of Gabii I have had the privilege of mentoring or contributing to is demonstrating: how unusual objects travelled between towns in the ancient world, how coins were accidentally lost by travellers, how objects of chance were deposited in burials, how keys were used not just for locking and unlocking boxes, but also to conspicuously display the fact that you had wealth worth locking up – just to list a few! It’s exciting to see how a close study of even the most mundane objects can help us uncover new knowledge about how ancient people lived and help to bring the ancient world to life. 

Banducci, L.M. 2014. “Function and Use of Roman Pottery: A Quantitative Method for Assessing Use Wear.” Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 27:187–210. 

Banducci, L.M. 2021. Foodways in Roman Republican Italy. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. 

Peña, J.T. 2007. Roman Pottery in the Archaeological Record. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Swift, E. 2017. Roman Artefacts and Society: Design, Behaviour, and Experience. Oxford University Press. 

Blog post at the University of Michigan Press about our recent publication about Gabii: https://blog.press.umich.edu/2021/11/a-new-view-on-the-roman-city-of-gabii/ 

The author stands near an excavation site with two small crates full of tiles.
Lots of rooftiles. Photo: E. Jenkinson 

I’m an Associate Professor of Greek and Roman Studies at Carleton University, in Ottawa, Canada. I work on archaeological projects (on excavations, surveys, and in laboratories) primarily in Italy. I’m originally from just outside of Toronto and completed my B.A. at McMaster University. I hold graduate degrees from the University of Cambridge and the University of Michigan. I’m the Director of Finds at the Gabii Project excavations near Rome, Italy and am currently a Margo Tytus Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classics at the University of Cincinnati. 

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