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Géoarchéologie des îles de la Méditerranée

Matthieu Ghilardi

Partie 5. Matières premières : exploitation et interactions / Exploitation and exchange of raw materials

Dietary preferences of the inhabitants of ancient Akrai/Acrae (south-eastern Sicily) during Roman times and the Byzantine period

Chowaniec Roksana et Gręzak Anna


This paper presents new insights into the ancient inhabitants of Akrai and seeks to confront the Roman literary tradition and iconography with bioarchaeological data and archaeological artifacts. The paper also contributes to the debate regarding the nature of the Roman diet – with the traditional view (based solely on written and iconographic sources) emphasizing luxurious consumption, extravagant feasts and exoticism. These considerations apply only to the newly available data from recent studies of the ancient town of Akrai/Acrae, located in the interior of south-eastern Sicily, in a strategic location atop a naturally-fortified hill. Although the town has a very long history (it was founded as a Greek colony in the middle of the 7th century BC), the discussion pertains solely to the Roman Empire and Byzantine periods. The chapter is mainly concerned with the osteological material, supplemented by descriptions of certain botanical and archaeological artifacts which provide a complementary picture of the diet. The osteological evidence is also used to address the possible relationship between diet and landscape. Our main findings are that the diet of the inhabitants of Akrai/Acrae was not as varied and elaborate as it is illustrated in ancient written sources and iconography. The diet was based primarily on meat and other products of domesticated animals (especially cattle, sheep and goats, and less frequently pigs and chickens), supplemented by local wild mammals and birds, and by commonly-available plants, and was only slightly diversified by seafood produce from the sea.

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1Traditional archaeological concepts and methods frequently and unequivocally “labelled” artifacts and assigned them specific functions. However, Greek and Roman artifacts have been mainly studied from the perspective of their creation (technology, typology, form) without considering their use as an important part of scholarly inquiry. Many interpretations are based solely on written and iconographic sources (Allison, 1997 and 1999); however, cultural layers and the predilections of ancient societies (the functional – multifunctional – non-functional and application aspects) need to be considered when discussing artifacts (Ray, 2009). Ancient Roman dining is one of these aspects, and is a key to understanding the material culture as well as being an indicator of the standard of living. It was a fundamental part of social life which affected health, customs and habits. The bulk of the research literature claims that the ancient Romans were noted for luxurious consumption, with mosaics displaying fruits, vegetables, cakes or wine; and ancient texts also provide abundant information about exuberant Roman feasts (Balsdon, 1974; Salza Prina Rocotti, 2002). The richness of written and iconographic sources demonstrates their extravagance and exoticism. According to the typical depiction, Roman feasts reached the level of folly, especially after the reign of Octavian Augustus, when the borders of the Roman Empire were expanded and allowed for the easier exchange of goods, with their scale never having been previously known in the ancient world (Pucci, 1989; Ray, 2009; Sirago, 1995). Reference to ancient culinary recipes reveals many often exotic ingredients, such as camels milk or hooves, francolins imported from the Aegean, guinea fowl from North Africa, spices from India or Phrygian cheese made of asses’ milk. In addition, although researchers highlight the diversity of the Roman diet, they often focus on exceptional ingredients or dishes, which may not be compatible with other evidence (Dosi et al., 1986). It is necessary to emphasize that during the last two decades (particularly the last decade during which various laboratory analyses have been employed) considerable progress has been made in archaeological studies, which have provided deeper insight into Roman culinary preferences and nutrition (Foss, 1994; Baeten et al., 2012; Pecci et al., 2014; Enayat, 2014). The enormous number of publications (scientific and popular) results in the common belief that Roman diets have been comprehensively reconstructed by scholars. However, images of the Roman diet seem to be both varied and misleading – because it is evident that the literary and philosophical traditions tend to value the tastes and trends in the diet over the health and nutritional aspects; or perhaps most importantly, the ease of access to the goods, since the delicacies, as illustrated in Pompeian paintings, were not necessarily present in the typical Roman cooking-pot. On the basis of the quoted sources, potentially deceptive, we draw (as with other aspects of ancient daily life, such as architecture) an “ideal” picture of the diet which is typified by the presence of exotic produce on the tables and dishes which are based on elaborate recipes. However, the picture of the Roman diet should not be discussed as a fashion, but rather in the wider context of the surrounding region, the size and location of the town, cultural and trade connections, as well as the natural environment. Moreover, modern investigations of different archaeological sites suggest there was no single universal diet or set of culinary preferences (King, 1999). Certainly the diet depended on the region, e.g. whether or not it was an agricultural area; in addition, it is clear that meat was only for the wealthy (Jongman, 2007), and people in towns had a more restricted access to meat than the inhabitants of smaller towns and settlements surrounded by agricultural land. Dietary variability can now be analyzed thanks to bioarchaeological, biological and lipid analyses. Furthermore, a number of natural factors, inter alia access to natural resources, soil fertility, and the degree of farming development must be considered. To understand the human diet it is therefore necessary to reconstruct the environment, keeping in mind that the culinary preferences are also useful for exploring the human impact on the environment (Wilkins et al., 2006). The landscape of Sicily has changed significantly since antiquity, and the extent of human impact on the environment is highly visible, particularly in coastal areas. However, compared to other regions the transformation is visible only in certain areas, for example in the industrial areas between Syracuse and Catania or the refineries of Gela. The natural landscape and environment of the island today, as in antiquity, provides an opportunity to study the ancient environment, food consumption and culinary preferences of its inhabitants.

2Many ancient Greek and Roman writers (e.g., Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, Cicero) noted that Sicily was a fertile land, particularly known for grain production (Cavallari, 1951; Sirago, 1995). Pliny the Elder in his “Natural History” (XVIII. 63-65) referred to the export of wheat from Sicily to Rome (Buonopane, 2015). Not without reason, the goddess Demeter/Ceres, Mother Earth, the goddess of nature, good harvests and fertility, especially of cereals, was the patroness of the island (Hinz, 1998). Sicily has many characteristics favorable for agriculture (fertile soil, valleys sloping towards the coastal areas, and good weather). The mountainous landscape also provides good conditions for vegetation growth and grazing. Especially in the south-eastern part of Sicily, the rich soil provides favorable growing conditions (Scramuzza, 1937; Finley, 1970). All of these factors have made Sicily an ideal place for human settlement. Furthermore, ancient Sicily is regarded as the cradle of the tradition of sumptuous dining and appreciation for what was “first placed in a pot and later served on a dish”. Archestratus, the Greek poet either from Gela or Syracuse, in his “Gastronomy”, written around the mid-4th century BC, extolled the merits of Sicilian cuisine. However, the first cookbook may have been written even earlier, at the court of Hiero I, tyrant of Syracuse (476-467 BC). Later, a significant work on cookery, written by Apicius, carefully described interesting dishes and their ingredients. In addition, the texts of Cato (“De agri cultura”), Varro (“Res rustica”), Columella (“De re rustica”) and Palladius (“De re rustica”) provide further information about plants, technologies and dietary preferences of the Romans.

Geographical and archaeological setting of the site

3The town of Akrai is situated in south-eastern Sicily (Figure 1A), in a mountainous area on the top of the naturally-fortified hill of Acremonte, at an elevation of 770 m above sea level. The region is part of the Hyblaean Mountains and is composed of large plateaus. The landscape is characterized by alluvial terraces and steep slopes traversed by deep valleys, with surrounding lower-lying areas. Akrai was a Greek colony founded in the middle of the 7th century BC (Thucydides VI.5.2; Chowaniec, 2015), close to the modern town of Palazzolo Acreide, in the province of Syracuse. The town is located ca. 33-35 km from the coast, and is surrounded by fertile land, forests and rivers (the Anapo and Tellaro). Its location was linked to both political and economic factors, in addition to the obviously favorable geographical features. The practically unforested Acremonte hill provides a clear view of the surrounding area, permitting early detection of any potential danger as well as control of the surrounding area, as well as providing good grazing for sheep and cattle (Di Vita, 1956; Copani, 2008). Undoubtedly for many centuries Akrai served as a guardhouse at Syracuse’s borders (Chowaniec, 2015). Until the 3rd century BC, the town was only marginally important and was completely dominated by Syracuse in the areas of politics, culture and economy (Chowaniec, 2015). Intensive development probably began in the mid–3rd century BC, at the time of Hiero II, tyrant of Syracuse. After the fall of the metropolis in 212 BC, Akrai, just as other Syracusan towns, was incorporated into the Roman province (Chowaniec et al., 2011; Figure 1B). However, there are many gaps in this part of its history. The lack of accurate knowledge of the natural environment of the town and its surroundings, the gaps in its history and the absence of domestic structures have inspired new research and a reevaluation about the town. In order to summarize the historical development of Akrai, at least ca. five phases of occupation can be distinguished:

  1. From the foundation period, from 664/663 BC until the middle of the 5th century BC – This was a “preliminary” period, when the site was claimed by Syracuse as a strategic point.
  2. From the 5th century BC until the mid-3rd century BC – Gradual development of the town occurred (Brea, 1956).
  3. From the mid-3rd century BC until 212/210 BC (until the fall of Syracuse) – A development “boom” occurred, presumably because of the favorable conditions agreed with the new possessors and/or the role they played in collecting taxes from the neighboring farms.
  4. From 212/210 BC until the second half of the 4th century AD – An occupation, several phases of development and decline.
  5. From the late 4th century AD until the beginning of the 7th century AD – An earthquake caused widespread destruction and a levelling of the habitation layers. However, the town was reoccupied in the Byzantine period.

4The remains of a Hellenistic–Roman house-hold complex with clearly visible Late Antique and Byzantine layers were discovered during the last few excavation seasons (Figure 2). The excavations yielded excellent archaeological material dating from the 3rd century BC to the beginning of the 7th century AD which provides a vivid picture of the lives of the inhabitants. Research conducted between 2011 and 2014, focused on exploring and documenting the buildings revealed within the Roman and Byzantine strata, and which more or less represented a reoccupation of the earlier Hellenistic-Roman foundations. The destroyed layers, which we had to work with, were probably related to an earthquake that occurred around the second half of the 4th century AD. This period was characterized by unusually intensive seismic activity in the area, the most significant of which was the disaster of ca. 365 AD (Barbano et al., 2014; Bottari et al., 2015). Libanius (314-392 or 393 AD), the ancient writer and orator, noted that many areas in the Mediterranean, including Palestine, Libya, Sicily, and Greece, were affected by seismic activity. Guidoboni et al., (1994) date the disasters which affected Sicily to between 361 and 363 AD, during the reign of Julian; however, Stiros (2001) dates them it to between 363 and 365 AD.

Figure 1: Map of Sicily showing the location of the ancient town of Akrai/Acrae in relation to other ancient cities (photo Bogacki M., elaborated by Chowaniec R.). The aerial photography of the archaeological site illustrates the principal archaeological remains (theatre, road, residential area, etc.).

Figure 2: Remains of a Hellenistic-Roman house with numbered Late Antiquity structures shown in yellow (photo Bogacki M., elaborated by Chowaniec R.).


5In order to compare how the Roman diet is presented in written sources, iconography and from osteological, botanical and archaeological evidence, we used the results of the archaeological investigation in Akrai/Acrae as an example (Chowaniec, 2015a and 2015b). The diet and culinary practices of its inhabitants were reconstructed on the basis of osteological and archaeobotanical materials as well as from the various types of artifacts (pottery and glassware, kitchen equipment, and accessories). However, this research goes beyond reconstructing the diet of an average resident of Akrai. The analyzed material can also be used as a starting point for tracing changes in the diet over successive periods spanning almost 1500 years, and to assess and reconstruct the natural environment of Akrai.

6During the excavation seasons between 2011 and 2014, abundant faunal osteological remains, mainly consisting of post-consumption remains (showing traces of preparation, portioning or cooking) were discovered. The animal bones come from three main levels: the original occupation levels (Roman), the filled levelled layers (late 4th cent. AD) containing a diverse range of archaeological material, and the occupation layer formed when the area was reoccupied (4th-6th cent. AD). Only the bones collected from the original occupation and the reoccupied strata provide the possibility of characterizing the exploitation of the habitat by the people who lived in this area.

7Archaeozoological examination (Gręzak, 2014 and 2015) was performed in detail according to standard rules and procedures (Reitz et al., 2008). For the purposes of this paper, only certain aspects of archaeozoological analysis are presented, including the range of species, age and sex profiles as well as observations of butchery marks and carcass processing. The data are taken from the original report (Gręzak, 2015). The Number of Identified Specimens (NISP) method was used to represent the range of species. The age of domestic mammals was estimated on the basis of the stage of development of the bones, as well as the stage of development and wear of the teeth (Silver, 1970; Müller, 1973). The sex of the animals was estimated on the basis of sexual dimorphism features visible on bones and teeth, such as the shape of horncores of sheep and goats; the shape of canines and canine dental alveoli for pigs (Schmid, 1972); and the breadthlength coefficient of metacarpal and metatarsal bones of cattle (Howard, 1963). In addition, butchery marks on the bones were analyzed (Lyman, 1994).

Results from osteological identification

8For the Roman, Late Roman and Byzantine strata, 5436 fragments of bones and teeth were collected, of which 5071 fragments were identified. Faunal material accounted for 93.3% of all the remains and consisted mainly of mammal remains (4838 in total), but also bird bones (57), fish bones (7), mollusk shells (129) and reptile bones (4) as well as snail shell fragments. It comprises both domestic and wild animals (Table 1); however, the bones and teeth of domestic animals dominate the mammal remains. The majority of skeletal elements of domestic animals belong to four staple livestock species: cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. Cattle (Bos primigenius f. taurus) and sheep (Ovis ammon f. aries) with goats (Capra aegagrus f. hircus) are approximately equally represented (35.16% and 32.50%, respectively). They are followed by pigs (Sus scrofa f. domestica) – 24.35%. There is also a smaller amount of bones and teeth belonging to horses (Equus ferus f. caballus), donkeys (Eguus africanus f. asinus), dogs (Canis lupus f. familiaris) and a single cat bone (Felis silvestris f. catus); however, they are not included in the data related to human consumption. The remains of wild species account for approximately 4% of mammal fragments and are represented mainly by cervids (red deer – Cervus elaphus and fallow deer – Dama dama). Several bones belong to the family of leporids (hare Lepus europaeus or Pallas rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus huxleyi).

  • 1 The latter bone was most probably deposited accidentally, because the individual had died there.

957 bones have been identified as bird bones. The birds are mainly represented by the domestic chicken (Gallus gallus f. domestica), goose (Anser sp.), rock partridge (Alectoris graeca or possibly Alectoris graeca whitakeri) and a single bone was identified as a Eurasian eagle owl (Bubo bubo)1. In addition, 4 remains belong to tortoises, and 7 bones belong to fish, including 5 vertebrae of the Tunidae family (Figure 3A). While the quantity of fish bones and bivalve shells, especially oysters, is low, a relatively conspicuous assemblage of land snail shells (mostly Helix genus, Figure 3B) was found. It should be added that the remains from the layers of extensive chronology analyzed and described in the previous report (Gręzak, 2014) also include occasional bones of wild boar, a predatory animal about the size of a fox, pigeon/dove (Columba livia) and thrushes (Turdus cf. philomenos). Age analysis performed on the cattle, sheep and goat remains indicated that most of the bones are from adult individuals. Only about 6% of cattle bone fragments and 7% of small ruminant bone fragments were determined to be morphologically immature. The age of slaughtered cattle, identified on the basis of dentition development, was between 6 months and 7 years. Sheep and goats aged 3-6 months were slaughtered only rarely, with 8-12 month-old animals killed at much higher rates, while the oldest individuals were more than 3-3.5 years old. In the case of pigs, many animals were slaughtered before they reached morphological maturity (about 3.5 years), with the bones and teeth of morphologically immature pigs comprising approximately 22%. On the basis of the stage of development and degree of wear of teeth it can be concluded that animals were killed at an age of between a few weeks and 3.5-5 years. They were most often slaughtered at 2-5 years (16 individuals), at 4-6 months/years (15 individuals) or 10-12 months

10(15 individuals) and less frequently around 2 years (13 individuals). Data relating to the age of death of horses and donkeys are rather limited. Two horses were younger than 5 years, and one horse and one donkey were between 5 and 7 years. Among the cattle remains there were 11 bones identified as female and 2 as male. In the case of goats, one male bone and one female bone were identified, as well as three male horncores and one female sheep horncore. The sex of pigs was identified on the basis of 30 mandibles, skulls and permanent canines. 17 elements were identified as male and 13 as female. The age of chickens ranged from several weeks up to several months. There were bones of males and females, the latter also including egg–layers. Chickens were represented by bones of different sizes. Some were similar to modern miniature breeds, although the males were slightly larger than those of these miniature breeds, or were comparable to modern “light–weight” breeds, e.g. green-legged partridge.



Bos primigenius f. taurus


Sus scrofa f. domestica


Ovis ammon f. aries


Capra aegagrus f. hircus


Capra aegagrus f. hircus/ Ovis ammon f. aries


Equus ferus f. caballus


Equus africanus f. asinus


Canis lupus f. familiaris


Felis silvestris f. catus


Domestic mammals


Red deer
Cervus elaphus


Fallow deer
Dama dama


(Lepus europeus or Oryctolagus cuniculus huxleyi)


Erinaceus europaeus


Wild mammals



Gallus gallus f. domestica


(?) Chicken
cf. Gallus gallus f. domestica


Anser sp.


Rock partidge
Alectoris graeca


(?) Rock partridge
cf. Alectoris graeca


European eagle-owl
Bubo bubo


















Table 1: Animal bone and teeth remains from the Late Roman and the Byzantine Periods.

Figure 3:
A: Vertebrae of fish from the Tunidae family photo (photo Gręzak A.).
B: shells of Helix genus (photo Chowaniec R.).
C: Cattle metatarsal bone bearing skinning marks on the proximal end (photo Gręzak A.).
D: cattle mandibles with cutting marks near the coracoid and condyloid processes.
E: red deer radii with chopping marks along the shafts (photo Bogacki M.).
F: cattle mandible with charring marks in the incisor area (photo Gręzak A.).

11Marks of butchery and portioning of meat, and also traces of cooking, are visible on the bones. Skinning marks were visible on the skulls of the cattle, found for example around the horncores and on the phalanges, calcaneus, talus and metapodial bones (Figure 3C). There are also marks showing that the carcasses were disarticulated, bearing chopping and cutting marks in different places and directions, both longitudinal and transverse, as well as filleting marks. These marks were observed on the bones of cattle, sheep, goat, pig, and rather infrequently on deer, and were found on different skeletal elements. The mandibles of cattle, pig, sheep and goat also exhibit cutting and filleting marks (Figure 3D). In several cases, bones have marks which were probably the result of professional butchering (Figure 3E). Nevertheless, although the “Roman technique of butchering with a Roman cleaver” (Seetah, 2006) (which requires only two or three strong cuts to divide the carcass) was known in Akrai, it was used rather infrequently. Several bones exhibit of charring and burning which may be associated with the thermal processing of meat and bones (Figure 3F).

Dietary reconstruction based on archaeological artifacts and literary sources

  • 2 The bone was identified as belonging to a thrush, probably a song thrush (Turdus cf. philomelos). (...)
  • 3 All seafood could have reached Akrai from Syracuse and was distributed by merchants. Oysters were (...)

12The results of osteological analysis indicate that animal husbandry was the most significant source of meat for the inhabitants of Akrai. Beef as well as mutton and goat were consumed most frequently and pork was eaten less often. In the 4th century the meat of small ruminants was slightly more popular than beef and was more common in the daily diet. Practically the whole carcass of the aforementioned animals was used, and most probably the head was eaten quite often, which is indicated by numerous butchery marks on the skulls and mandibles of cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. Meat came from individuals of different ages, although adult animals are the best represented. Dishes sometimes comprised meat from juvenile animals, which may have been valued for its taste and texture. In ancient Akrai, livestock animals were used as the main sources of protein and fat, and thus there were many animal products in the diet. This is confirmed by the old age of some the individuals found in Akrai. Age and sex analyses show that a significant proportion of the cattle reached maturity, especially females – which therefore could have been used as draught animals (in addition to donkeys and mules) as well as a source of meat, but especially of milk. According to Marcus Terentius Varro (an ancient Roman scholar and writer who lived from 116 to 27 BC, the author of “Rerum Rusticarum Libri Tres”), the Romans preferred sheep milk to cows milk, while in medical works information indicates that people between the 4th and 7th cent. AD drank ditto milk, because it was the densest and had the highest fat content (Kokoszko, 2011). It seems likely that the inhabitants of Akrai used different forms of milk as well as from different mammal species. In ancient times, milk was very seldom drunk fresh, more usually sour; thus, in the ancient literature we find the term oros (whey), the fluid remaining after the separation of the curds. Milk was also used to produce other food, such as cheese. Age analysis of sheep remains indicates that most individuals reached maturity, suggesting their use as sources of milk and wool, as well as meat. Poultry (mainly chicken) and wild mammal meat, consisting mainly venison, occasionally fallow deer, wild boar, hare and rabbit, were rare in the diet of the people of Akrai. Apicius (VI.8.1-15) lists 15 recipes for chicken and capons. It is not possible to identify capons on the basis of osteological remains, but it is clear that cockerels and hens of different ages and probably of different morphological types were consumed in Akrai. Several ancient wall paintings depict chickens, which resemble red jungle fowl or wild game fowl. For example, cocks are depicted on the E wall of the open room in the peristyle in the House of Chlorus and Caprasia (Taberna Attiorum), and another rooster is depicted in-between grapes (Watson, 2002). There were also bones of pigeon/dove in the investigated areas; however, it is not possible to establish if they came from domestic or wild forms. There are no marks indicating that the elements of the skeleton from the site are post-consumption remains. Pliny writes that “pigeons go through a special ceremony of kissing before mating” (NH 10.158), while Apicius in the “De re coquinaria libri X” (VI.4.1-4) provides recipes for roast and boiled pigeons and for two sauces specifically for them. Columba livia f. domestica, the rock dove, also appears on wall paintings, i.e. in the villa of Poppaea in Oplontis and in the House of the Gold Bracelet in Pompeii (Watson, 2002). Another species discovered in Akrai, the rock partridge, is depicted on the E wall of the garden in the House of the Gold Bracelet, near a purple gallinule and also in a garden painting in House (Watson, 2002). The picture of three dead partridges hanging by their bills from a nail is shown on the wall, and another dead bird is shown hanging from a game clip with two quinces in the left hand panel of a wall painting from Herculaneum (Watson, 2002). The birds were hung before they were eaten, but they were probably also kept as a decoration. As a curiosity, Apicius gives the recipes for using thrushes in a mold of peas (V.3.2) and in a stuffing of suckling pig (VIII.7.14). Turdus philomelos2 found in Akrai is represented by one tarsometatarsus. Perhaps the individual was kept for entertainment, or its bone was deposited in the layer after its natural death. The song thrush is represented in iconography and it is depicted for example perched on a small pine to the left of the Mars statue and above the heron on the E panel of the wall in the peristyle garden wall in the House of Venus Marina (Watson, 2002). Another representation shows a bird in flight to the right of a mulberry bush in the garden painting on the outside S wall of the small room in the same house. The diet of the people of Akrai was varied and included dishes comprising fish and oysters, even though their remains are rare. This is unsurprising since Sicily was an island noted for traditional tuna fishing and fish-salting was also very popular in the south-eastern part, and at other sites such as Vendicari and Pachino; it was also known for garum and salsamenta production (Marzano, 2013). Fish and fishing are very popular subjects for iconographic compositions of pottery, mosaics and wall paintings in Sicily. Oysters are another marine resource found in the material from Akrai3. For the Romans, oysters occupied the “first rank as a table delicacy for a longtime” asreportedby Plinythe Elder (XXXII.21.1). There are numerous references to oysters in Latin texts, for example an extravagant banquet offered by Trimalchio is described by Petronius in “Satyricon” (70.4).

13Shells of land snails (Helix genus) are more frequent at the site than oyster shells, but the origin of this deposit is unclear. This species still inhabits the area and can be regarded as local, and thus the assemblage may represent a natural accumulation or be an instance of collection and consumption; it is known that they were valued in the Roman cuisine. In Roman times, mollusks were eaten as a result of new farming practices which had appeared by the 2nd cent. BC (Marzano, 2013). According to the Lex Aemilia (M. Aemilius Scaurus in 115 BC), serving mollusks, dormice and exotic birds at banquets was prohibited (VIII.57.223).

14Other species whose remains are present in faunal materials, such as horse, donkey, dog, cat and hedgehog, do not bear butchery marks and consequently are not included in the data related to consumption. These were either synanthropic species or they fulfilled a different function in the economy. Additional information pertaining to diet is provided by other archaeological sources. Precision sampling, based on collecting dry soil from various archaeological strata, sieving and flotations, were performed over the last two seasons in Akrai. Some carbonized archaeobotanical materials (mainly fruits) were found. Common findings are the stones of wild olive (Olea europaea L.), walnut shells, plum stones and cereals. Olive and wine production were known in the ancient town, since the rock-cut press-beds with a small collecting cup-mark, were discovered in Akrai. The thermal treatment and cooking of food prior to its consumption was a significant part of Greco-Roman civilization and kitchen vessels are not only evidence of thermal treatment of food, but they also indicate the methods of cooking or baking. The ceramic assemblage allows us to construct a typology of the kitchen wares. 65 types of cooking-vessel have been distinguished, including cooking pots, casseroles, pans, lids and bowls (Figure 4). There is also a category of pottery called “plain ware” for serving, preparing and consuming food, such as mortaria and bowls. The finds of amphorae, used as containers, are also an indicator of diet. Evidence reflecting the diet in Akrai can also be found among other artifacts, e.g. the remains of iron grates, fire hooks, spoons, and large knives for different types of meat. An excellent example may be the lead seals with an image of a bee, which probably indicates the transport of honey (Figure 5). Since the Roman Republic, Sicily has been famous for honey, especially the thyme variety collected in the Hyblaean Mountains (Bortolin, 2008). In his “Natural History” Pliny the Elder notes that Ibi optimus semper, ubi optimorum doliolis florum conditur, hoc et Hymetto et Hybla (XI.13.32), indicating that the honey from Hybla was well known and appreciated by the Romans. This is also confirmed by Martial (38/41-102/104 AD) in his “Epigrammata”: Favi siculi. Cum dederis Siculos mediae de collibus Hyblae, cecropios dicas tu licet esse favos (13.105).

Figure 4: Examples of cooking pottery from Akrai (drawings and photo Wicenciak U.).

Figure 5: Lead seals with the image of a bee, probably indicating the transport of honey (Photo Bogacki M., drawn by Zańko A.).


15The analyzed materials span an extended time range (the Roman and Byzantine periods) and it is likely that certain changes in animal economy and dietary preferences of the Akrai people took place during that time. In Sicily, as in other regions of the Mediterranean, the economy and diet begun to change with the founding of Greek colonization. Under the influence of Greek culture, Sicily was known especially for olive oil and wine production. Over time, small farms were established and expanded progressively. Agricultural expansion and intensification were especially associated with the arrival of the Romans. Finally, during the reign of emperor Augustus, especially after the Sextus Pompeius revolt, many large Roman farms (latifundium) were established in Sicily (Sirago, 1995). This development significantly reduced the extent of forests, but also affected water availability and the assemblages of plants and animals, and consequently the human diet. It is also generally accepted that it boosted meat consumption in the Empire (Jongman, 2007).

16The diet of people in Akrai during the Roman and Byzantine periods was based on animal husbandry and agriculture as well as on the natural produce of woodland and forest edge environments. The diet was based primarily on meat and other products of domesticated animals, supplemented by wild mammals and birds from the immediate environment. It was complemented by commonly-available plants, and was only slightly diversified with seafood. This situation was not unique and was typical of the Romans that most of the meat for consumption was derived from domestic animals, with the addition of wild animal meat (MacKinnon). Wild animal bones (i.a. cervids, leporids) account for less than 10% of the total number of bones recorded in more than three-quarters of the Roman sites in Italy (MacKinnon, 2004). Generally, domestic animals were also the basic sources of animal protein and fat for the people of Akrai. The high representation of cattle, sheep and goats indicates the pastoral character of economy. These species were raised for both meat and secondary products (i.a. milk, cheese, eggs), which is indicated by the age of the animals and their sex profiles. The predominance of cattle is interesting, it is not because is not especially typical of the settlements of the Roman period in Italy (cattle bones are usually ranked third; cf. King, 1999). However, it should be noted that the mountainous terrain of Sicily provided good pasture. In addition to cattle, sheep and goats, raising pigs was also popular, while the extent of seafood consumption in Akrai is unclear; thus this last category cannot be regarded as common food. In the case of Akrai, venison was not a significant part of the diet but rather was used to introduce some variety. Some differences can be deduced on the basis of the species distribution of faunal remains in different stratigraphic layers. The differences appear in each basic livestock species. In some Late Roman/Byzantine layers bones of cattle are most represented (I.3; I.5; I.16, I.21), while in others dated earlier, to the late 4th cent. AD, sheep and goat were the most prevalent (I.6; I.17). However, sometimes their proportions were very similar.

17Dietary analysis can be used to infer what the local environment looked like and can also help us identify the human impacts. The list of hunted species (i.a. red deer, fallow deer, hare, rabbit, wild boar) contributes to our understanding of the environmental conditions of Akrai. The presence of cervid remains indicates that there were broadleaf and mixed forests with young trees and meadows, as well as mature trees (Geist, 1998). Hares and boars were mostly found at forest edges or in fields. Thrushes were common in gardens, parks, farmland and open woods, while pigeons/doves were widespread in the mountain cliffs and caves; in addition, small varieties also occurred in more open fields and pastures with scattered trees, and in the wintertime in farmland. Rock partridges occurred on inhabited mountain slopes, areas of bare limestone, low elevation grassland with sparse trees and shrubs, or occasionally sought refuge in the branches of low trees (Watson, 2002). The Roman occupation of Sicily, as a result of the intensive pastoralism and intensive cultivation, caused significant environmental changes (Heinzel, et al., 2011). The presence of the aforementioned wild animals confirms the well-known opinion (Johnstone, 1998) that during the Roman period Sicily had more extensive forests than today (Scramuzza 1937). An excellent example of signifiant environmental change in Sicily may be the presence of red and fallow deer, whose bones are represented within the faunal assemblages at many archaeological sites. However, they are now absent from Sicily (Chapman, 1975; Davis, et al., 2009), which may be linked to the extensive deforestation of the island that began in the late Byzantine period. The studied materials from Akrai mainly comprise post–consumption remains (a mixture of primary butchery waste and domestic refuse) and for this reason they can be used as a starting point for reconstructing both the human diet and the natural environment of the area. In order to draw firm conclusions about changes in food consumption, we need to examine more materials from a larger area and from undisturbed layers, which in addition should span relatively short intervals of time.


18The archaeological excavation was enabled thanks to the agreement between Soprintendenza ai Beni Culturali e Ambientali of Syracuse and the University of Warsaw. We express our warm and deep gratitude to Dr. Rosalba Panvini (Soprintendente di Siracusa) and Dr. Rosa Lanteri (Director of Archaeological Unit of Soprintendenza), who demonstrated great dedication and goodwill in supporting the scholarly proceedings of the mission. We also thank Dr. Lorenzo Guzzardi, who initiated the cooperation between the Soprintendenza dei Beni Culturali e Ambientali di Siracusa and the University of Warsaw. The excavation campaigns were made possible by grants from the Polish National Science Centre (UMO–2011/03/B/HS3/00567). The achievements of the archaeological mission in 2012-2014 would have never happened without the financial support of the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education (4815/E–343/SPUB/2012/3 and 4815/E–343/SPUB/2013/3–1).



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1 The latter bone was most probably deposited accidentally, because the individual had died there.

2 The bone was identified as belonging to a thrush, probably a song thrush (Turdus cf. philomelos). Turdus philomelos (associated with Latin trichas and Greek τριχάς) is almost universally identified as the song thrush which is slightly smaller than the blackbird (Arnott, 2007, p. 246).

3 All seafood could have reached Akrai from Syracuse and was distributed by merchants. Oysters were raised in natural beds on the Sicilian coasts and transported in amphorae containing cold water. Pliny the Elder reports that oysters, as a luxury food, were served “covered in snow” (XXXII.64).

Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 1: Map of Sicily showing the location of the ancient town of Akrai/Acrae in relation to other ancient cities (photo Bogacki M., elaborated by Chowaniec R.). The aerial photography of the archaeological site illustrates the principal archaeological remains (theatre, road, residential area, etc.).
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Légende Figure 2: Remains of a Hellenistic-Roman house with numbered Late Antiquity structures shown in yellow (photo Bogacki M., elaborated by Chowaniec R.).
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Légende Figure 3:A: Vertebrae of fish from the Tunidae family photo (photo Gręzak A.).B: shells of Helix genus (photo Chowaniec R.).C: Cattle metatarsal bone bearing skinning marks on the proximal end (photo Gręzak A.).D: cattle mandibles with cutting marks near the coracoid and condyloid processes.E: red deer radii with chopping marks along the shafts (photo Bogacki M.).F: cattle mandible with charring marks in the incisor area (photo Gręzak A.).
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Légende Figure 4: Examples of cooking pottery from Akrai (drawings and photo Wicenciak U.).
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Légende Figure 5: Lead seals with the image of a bee, probably indicating the transport of honey (Photo Bogacki M., drawn by Zańko A.).
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Institute of Archaeology, University of Warsaw, Poland,

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