What Interesting Flavours Did the Romans Introduce to Britain?

Calleva Atrebatum (Late Iron Age oppidum and Roman town)
Silchester, Basingstoke

Scheduled: 1923
NHLE entry: Listing details for Calleva Atrebatum

A great deal is known about the Roman diet from historical texts, mosaics and paintings. Entire kitchens and bakeries surviving from sites such as Pompeii and Herculaneum have told us much about what people living in the Mediterranean region at the time ate and drank. Yet the best evidence concerning the diet of Roman Britons comes from the remains of the food itself. Archaeologists from the University of Reading have been excavating the remains of the 1st century Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester) since the mid-1970s. One aspect of their 'Town Life' project has been the analysis of plant foods found in the soil by archaeobotanists, which has helped build a picture of the daily diet consumed by the Roman inhabitants.

Waterlogging, charring and mineral replacement

Seeds, chaff, leaf fragments and, occasionally, whole fruits have survived in the abandoned town's soil for almost 2,000 years. The plant remains found in pits and wells have been preserved in three different ways: waterlogging, charring and mineral replacement. Waterlogged preservation occurs in permanently wet conditions, where a lack of oxygen reduces bacterial and fungal attack. Even the delicate leafy parts of plants can sometimes be preserved, such as the segments of leek that were recovered from Viking Yorvik, modern-day York. Charring occurs when plants are burned under reducing conditions, as they are exposed to limited oxygen. The process works well with the small, dense parts of plants, particularly cereal grains and pulses and some spices and flavourings.

In Roman Colchester, entire buildings were burned during the revolt of AD 60-61 by the British queen Boudica, resulting in the preservation of whole dates, figs, stone-pine nuts and herbs such as coriander, as well as cereal grains and peas.

The third form of preservation encountered at the Calleva Atrebatum site was replacement of the mineral calcium phosphate. This is often found in latrines or cess-pits or sometimes midden heaps (dumps for domestic or arable waste). Mineral compounds derived from human and animal faeces and urine, food waste and bone remains move through the liquid within the deposit. The compounds replace the organic components in some seeds and woody plant parts, turning them into fossils.

What did the population of Calleva Atrebatum eat?

As well as cereals (barley and spelt, an ancient type of wheat) and pulses (peas, lentils and broad beans), the inhabitants of the town ate a range of flavourings, many of which were introduced into Britain during or just before the Roman period. The wide range of fruits and spices is typical of elite or urban populations, although even people in rural areas experienced at least some of the newly introduced tastes. Fruits such as mulberries, grapes, plums and apples may have been cultivated locally, while figs and olives were more likely to have been imported, probably from Mediterranean regions, as preserved fruits. Additionally, blackberries, raspberries and sloes, all native to the area, were probably collected from the wild.

Spices and flavourings

Perhaps the most significant contribution played by the Romans to the diet of native Britons was the introduction of spices and flavourings (although some were recorded in the area before the Roman conquest). Summer savory, mint, and mustard, poppy and flax seeds and linseeds were all found in the Roman period deposits. While mint, mustard, poppy and flax were present in the British Isles long before the Roman invasion, their use in flavouring food - like the sprinkle of poppy seeds on bread -may have been a Roman development. The range of foods found at the site indicates that the inhabitants of the town were eating a sophisticated diet, typical of urban or relatively elite Roman citizens, although the use of flavours such as coriander spread to rural areas during that time.

Stepping back in time today

The most recent excavation of Calleva Artrebatum finished in 2014. Parts of the site are now open to the public, with interpretive displays and guides to help unravel the cultural development of the town nearly 2,000 years ago. Visit the Calleva Atrebatum excavation website for more information.