Exotic Food in Roman Leicester

Exotic Food in Roman Leicester: Integrating the evidence from pottery, bones and seeds

Jennifer Browning, Elizabeth Johnson, Angela Monckton, Anita Radini & Vicki Score

The site and its location

This research shows how faunal, botanical and ceramic evidence from a single refuse and cesspit can be woven together to shed light on the trade of exotic foods in Roman Leicester (Ratae Corieltavorum). The pit was excavated by ULAS on a site adjacent to St Nicholas Circle in 2004. This is located in the south-western quarter of the Roman town, on the Tripontium road leading to the South Gate and not far from the Fosse Way entering the town through the West Gate.

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Work progressing on the site.

During the 2nd and 3rd century it was occupied by a colonnaded building fronting onto the west side of the street. Probably associated with this building was a large rectangular pit measuring approximately 1.6m x 1.8m with a depth of 0.9m. The main deposit dates to the middle of the 2nd century, although an earlier fill contained later 1st and early 2nd century pottery.

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Plan of the site showing the Roman deposits and the location of the pit and the colonnaded building.

The Pottery

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Excavating pottery.

The pit produced an assemblage of 549 sherds with an overall average sherd weight of 33.7g (23.1g discounting amphorae) deposited in the middle of the 2nd century. The most striking aspect is the quantity of amphorae and flagons, which account for half of the assemblage; forms which would normally account for only eight percent and one percent respectively in deposits elsewhere in the town.

The amphora types present are Dressel 20, Gauloise 4, Dressel 2-4, Cam 186 and Fishbourne 148.3, representing at least six vessels. Baetican Dressel 20 olive oil and Gaulish Gauloise 4 wine amphorae are the most common types found in Leicester. A Dressel 2-4 wine amphora is most likely to have come from Italy, and the Cam 186 (Cadiz fabric) is thought to be used for transporting fish sauces. The source of Fishbourne 148.3 amphorae is unknown, although it may be related to the Cam 189 ‘carrot’ amphora, possibly associated with the transport of fruit such as dates.

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Pottery from the pit.

The flagons are from sources such as Mancetter-Hartshill, Northamptonshire and Verulamium (St Albans). Identifiable rims include devolved ring-necked and two-handled collared forms, representing at least seventeen vessels.

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Proportions of vessel types from the pit (% sherds).

In addition, seventy-seven percent of the bowls, dishes, plates and platters are imported samian table wares from South and Central Gaul, representing at least twenty-six vessels. Forms present include Dragondorff 15/17, 18, 18/31, 18/31R, 79, 30, 37 and Curle 11, ranging in date from the late 1st century through to the mid-2nd century. Particularly interesting is the complete absence of any samian cup forms or indeed cups or drinking beakers in any other ware. This group is not a typical domestic refuse assemblage, given the proportion and range of vessel types present. The large number of amphorae and flagons might suggest commercial premises dealing in products such as olive oil or wine which required decanting into the smaller flagons for resale; and whilst the high proportion of samian table wares would indicate dining, the complete lack of drinking vessels suggests not. Rather, it may be that the bowls and dishes were used for displaying food products for sale.

Environmental Evidence

Seeds and small bones are only recovered by wet-sieving soil samples, which is routine practice in Leicester. Samples from this pit were found to contain mineralised plant remains which can be preserved by calcium phosphate in sewage. The presence of these food remains together with fly puparia, suggest that this was a cesspit and that these foods were consumed nearby. The remains included grape pips and fig seeds which are likely to be imported, whilst other fruits, apple and cherry or plums were grown locally perhaps from introduced plants. Opium poppy is exotic and could be used to flavour food, whilst wild strawberries were also grown or gathered and brought into the town.

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Seeds from the pit.

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From left to right: Grape pips, fig seeds, opium poppy seed & cherry/plum stones (all photographs taken against 1mm paper).

Fish remains were also present, and both marine and freshwater species including herring, eel and perch have also been found elsewhere in the town. Charred cereal remains included a few spelt wheat grains, which are ubiquitous in the Roman and Iron Age periods. However, the evidence for the consumption of fruits including imports, and fish is unknown in the area in the Iron Age despite examining over a thousand samples from each period from the county.

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Fish bones and scales.

The remains of fruit and fish from this cesspit and others in the town, therefore represent a departure from the local Iron Age economy and show the Roman influence on food available in the town.

The Animal Bones

The pit contained 198 bone fragments, sixty-one percent were cattle or cattle-sized but butchered sheep and pig were also present in small numbers. Although a mixture of animal bone waste was represented, most notable were sixteen fragmented cattle scapulae. These were fused and well grown, indicating that they came from adult animals. They were all butchered in a similar manner, distinct from that seen in early Roman deposits at the site, where scapulae were simply chopped through the ‘neck’ of the bone. Most scapulae from the pit were chopped at the distal end, sometimes transecting the glenoid cavity. The blade frequently had a hole cut into it, roughly rectangular in shape. This is presumed to be a hook mark, from which to suspend the shoulder during salting, drying or smoking. In some cases, the spine was cut off and fine parallel knife cuts were noted on the neck and blade, often obliquely angled and probably produced during the slicing of the dried meat from the bone.

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Cattle scapula from the pit (left), many showing hook marks; clean removal of spine (top right); detail showing cut marks (bottom right).

This manner of butchery is consistent with the smoking or curing of shoulders of beef and similar groups of scapulae have been found all over the Roman Empire. British examples are common at military sites but also occur in urban centres, including Lincoln and York. This style of butchery seems to be a predominately Roman phenomenon. The Lincoln examples are from Roman deposit and the York scapulae are from mid-2nd and early 3rd century deposits, whilst the Leicester assemblage lies firmly in the 2nd century. The particular concentration of scapulae in the Leicester pit is a strong indicator that the feature does not simply contain normal household waste. It also suggests that the meat was being sold off the bone from nearby premises. Observations on the York examples is equally true here; if the cured meat had been sold on the bone then it is likely that the scapulae would have been distributed in deposits all over the town.

Integrating the Evidence

The atypical nature of each individual assemblage indicates that we are looking at the disposal of specialised commercial rather than residential refuse into a cesspit used by people eating a wide variety of new and imported foodstuffs not available to the population a century before. The implication is that the colonnaded building is part of a row of commercial premises fronting on to the main street of what was, by then, close to the centre of a bustling town with colossal public building projects underway and enjoying a breadth of trading links within Britannia and the wider Empire.

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Summary of the foodstuffs recovered from the pit and their likely origin.

The cesspit lay to the rear of these shops and it may be that it received latrine waste and refuse from one or several of these premises. The pottery indicates the possible sale of amphora-borne oil, wine and preserves together with food presentation or serving but with no consumption of beverages. The botanical evidence demonstrates the importation and introduction of a range of fruits and seeds which may have been consumed on the premises, whilst the faunal remains indicate the selling of beef carved off the bone and fish preserved in salt or as sauce. The overall impression is of a shop similar to a delicatessen.

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A Roman delicatessen. Art by Mike Codd. Image credit: Leicester City Council.

Specialist deposits of this kind do not occur often and the opportunity to study this example has not only increased our knowledge of life in Roman Leicester but also demonstrates the benefits of an integrated approach to interpretation across a team of specialists.

A fuller account of the material and a discussion of the site can be found in Score, V et al 2010 “A -Roman Delicatessen’ at Castle Street, Leicester’ in Trans. Leic. Arch. & HIst. Soc. 87, 77-94.

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