|exhibition poster from 2015|
Caroline: So, Erica, you’re an archaeobotanist, which basically means you study plant remains and especially food remains. Are you happy to be doing sewers? Is it quite fun?
Erica: It is quite fun. You get to see what people actually ate.
Caroline: Is being an archaeobotanist a separate thing from being a ‘poopologist’? Or are they essentially the same career description?
Erica (laughs): They’re slightly different. Human waste only survives in limited number of contexts; latrines, sewers and the like. Archaeobotanical remains, and especially carbonized material, tends to preserve at almost all sites.
Caroline: You’ve been on digs at Aphrodisias in Turkey, Herculaneum in Italy and Utica in Tunisa, a Phoenician site. So what were the Phoenicians eating?
|A New York Sandwich... with pepper!|
Caroline (laughs): I’m the Middle Eastern Salad.
Erica: And I’m the New York Sandwich.
Caroline (looking at the newly arrived platter): So which of these things would the Phoenicians have been eating in Utica, in Tunisia?
Erica: Not potatoes, tomatoes or cauliflower.
Caroline: But they might have had a balsamic vinaigrette? And chicken?
Erica: Yes. Chicken, bacon, cheese… But the earliest material I have from Utica is Roman, not Phoenician.
Caroline: Ah! What sort of remains tell you it’s Roman? Fragments of fish sauce jars for example?
Erica: No, we dated the site from the context. Its hard to tell Roman influence from food remains because the whole Mediterranean had the same staple foods.
Caroline: What do you mean by staples? Is fish sauce a staple?
Erica: A staple food would be anything they depended on. In the Mediterranean the three main staples are grains, wine and olive oil.
Caroline: Is there any evidence of food fads?
Erica: Not in Utica, but in Herculaneum black pepper was very popular. The people eating it were not necessarily upper class but they were willing to pay. It comes all the way from India so is expensive.
Caroline: So it was a status symbol.
Caroline: Speaking of black pepper, may I grind you some? And smile! I’m taking a picture.
(Erica laughs and submits to having her photo taken.)
Caroline: So what got you interested in Classics? What was your spur moment?
Erica: My friend made me go see Gladiator and I really liked it, although it’s not historically accurate... Also, we were studying the Romans in high school.
Caroline: Fun! So Tell me a bit about being an archaeologist. Are you out in the sun and the rain? Under a tent? Or is it mainly lab work in a basement?
Erica: It depends on the site. If it’s a small section I’ll excavate it myself. When I was in Aphrodisias I excavated a section of a drain.
Caroline: With a trowel and everything?
Erica: Yes. I take my samples and then do flotation and process them on site.
Erica: It’s a method used to identify plant remains using buckets of water and sieves. You put the material in agitated water. The soil and sand sink but seeds, grains and lighter objects float to the surface.
Caroline: What did you find at Aphrodisias? The staples? Anything remarkable?
Erica: I’ve found wheat and barley, and also grapes, olives and peaches.
Caroline: Do you remember your first dig?
Erica: I was in Jordan for seven weeks. It was an amazing experience. The site was Humayma, about an hour north of Aqaba, and very dry. There were about a dozen of us from Queen’s University on this particular dig.
Caroline: Describe an average day?
Erica: We would drive up there every day. We would get up at 5.30 am, pile into a minibus at 6am and get to the site around 7am. We were working with Bedouin. They would make us extremely sweet black tea when we arrived. It was really good. Then we would dig until about 10am and stop for breakfast, cooked in a frying pan over a file kindled by the Bedouin. I was excavating part of a bath complex.
Caroline: What did you eat for breakfast?
Erica: They would bring fresh flat bread baked by their mothers or wives. And we would bring food, too: canned tomatoes, corned beef and peas. They would heat the food in frying pans over a kindling fire and we ate it with the fresh flatbread. Then we would dig again until 1pm when we finished for the day. We would go back, have lunch, sort and wash the pottery and then leave it on the roof of the building to dry. Once that was done you had the rest of the afternoon free.
Caroline: What was Aqaba like?
Erica: It’s not too big. A fort town. Pretty modern but with a few old buildings including a fort and giant flagpole. I really liked it. I liked Tunisia, too.
Caroline: When were you in Tunisia? What period was the site?
Erica: The site was Utica, so about 30 minutes outside Tunis. It was a Punic, then Roman, then Islamic site. I was there from 2013 to 2015.
Caroline: I love going to places like that. Sometimes I think it’s the closest we’ll get to travelling back to the past.
Erica: In Tunisia you go to these outdoor barbecues in a big group and they cook freshly slaughtered meat for you. If you drive past at a certain part of the day you often see an animal they’ve slaughtered just hanging there. There’s no blood so they must have drained it before they hang it outside underneath a tent. They put the head on display. There are often live sheep tethered to the tent near where they cook the meat.
|preparing to slaughter a ram in Morocco 2006|
Polite Woman (interrupting): I wonder if we might borrow your salt and pepper; we seem to be in rather short supply.
Caroline (laughs): Sure. Here’s our luxurious pepper. And salt.
(to Erica) Have you ever been on a dig here in Britain?
Erica: Yes. An Iron Age and Roman site called Marcham near Oxford. It was a rural sanctuary site.
Caroline: What did you notice about the diet there?
Erica: Cereal and chaff. I was doing flotation. In the Iron Age, people were bringing their crops and processing them there.
Caroline: When you process grain its like a biblical threshing floor, correct?
Erica: Yes. You often find burnt chaff nearby, which shows it was used for kindling.
Caroline: Did they dedicate some of it the grain after threshing? Or just take it back home?
Erica: They ate it.
Caroline: What evidence do we have for a Roman presence at Marcham?
Erica: There were a lot of oysters, even though Marcham is quite far from the coast. Experts can tell which coast an oyster comes from by the markings on its shell.
Caroline: What’s the most memorable revelation you’ve had digging through sewage material?
Erica: The diversity of their diet. That particular sewer at Herculaneum served Romans from the lower and middle classes. It was below an apartment building with shops at ground level and people living behind and above. There were a few independent apartments on the upper floor, but nothing elite. From that one sewer we catalogued 114 different types of food including fish, shellfish and plants but not including other animal meat. They didn’t seem to have any food taboos; privately they would just eat anything. It’s often assumed the poor would eat cheap bread and wine but they’re eating a huge variety of things, and seasoning their food with dill, coriander, fennel…
|Magna Roma menu cover|
Erica: Some friends and I tried to recreate some Roman dishes and I think it’s actually more like Asian than modern Italian food.
Caroline: Yes! They say that garum is more like Thai Fish Sauce than like Worcestershire Sauce. It’s pretty revolting.
Erica: The fish sauce is essentially salt because they didn’t add salt. And although there were often lots of spices the quantities were quite small, so the taste was hidden. My friends and I made a lentil dish with chestnuts, honey, red-wine vinegar, and Thai Fish Sauce. Within those ingredients you can’t identify any one thing. It’s a good holiday dish for winter. Feed it to people and don’t tell them what they’re eating. Then afterwards you can mention it had fish sauce in it!
Caroline: It sounds delicious!
Erica (nodding): We also made a dish of pork and figs. We boiled the figs to make syrup and then cook the pork in that. It was the moistest piece of pork I have ever had.
Caroline: Fascinating. They found an ancient Roman amphora in the Thames full of olives preserved in sweet grape syrup!
Erica: Columella talks about olives in honey and how it’s both salty and sweet.
Caroline: That would be such an alien taste.
Erica: When you cook these dishes it doesn’t taste like anything you’ve tasted before.
Caroline: Thanks for sharing all that, Erica. Do you have a photo of you on a site that I could post?
Thanks, Erica, for letting me post this interview. Good luck in your future adventures and research!