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Multidisciplinary approaches to food and foodways in the medieval Eastern Mediterranean

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Sylvie Yona Waksman

Byzantium and beyond

Eating in Aegean lands (ca 700-1500)

Perspectives on pottery

Joanita Vroom

Résumé

The intention of this paper is to use ceramic finds from excavations at Athens (Greece) in order to discuss food habits and household archaeology in the western Aegean during Byzantine times (ca 700-1500). The first part shows previous research of some of my projects, among which methodologies and approaches that have been explored in past years with respect to ceramic finds and eating manners in the Eastern Mediterranean. The second part focuses on the Byzantine eating experience by comparing the location of pots, pans and pithoi (large storage jars) in excavated structures at Athens (dating to ca 700-1500). An attempt is made to look through the looking glass of food in both directions by asking questions like: what can food tell us about daily life in the Byzantine/medieval period, and what can pottery assemblages of this period tell us about eating habits and dining customs in the Aegean region?

Texte intégral

Introduction

1In the land of the Haute Cuisine, one is easily tempted to think that food constitutes the meaning of life. Well, that is almost correct. In reality, food constitutes a means to understand life. Food is like a looking glass through which one can view trends in history, in culture, in religion, in politics, and even in the most mundane human affairs. The intention of this paper is to use this looking glass to understand archaeological finds of pottery. More specifically, I will not only discuss the relation between foodways of the past and ceramic finds, but I will also try to discuss the relation between eating habits and the persons who once actually used these objects that are now broken pieces of pottery.

2Eating in Aegean lands is a joy forever, as most of us know only too well, but has it always been as delightful and healthy as it is today? How was dinner in the past, as far as food, eating habits and table settings are concerned? And in particular, how can these be detected through archaeological data? In the first part of this paper it is my aim to present some of the methodologies and approaches that have been explored by me in past years with respect to ceramic finds and eating habits in the Eastern Mediterranean. In the second part I attempt to take a closer look at the Byzantine eating experience by comparing pots and pans (dating to ca 700-1500) from Athens, located on the western coast of the Aegean. In a way, it is my intention to look through the looking glass of food in both directions, as I will ask what food can tell us about daily life in the Byzantine/medieval period, but also what pottery assemblages of this period can tell us about eating habits and dining customs in the Aegean region.

Previous research

  • 1 This VIDI project was funded by the Netherlands Organisation of Scientific Research (NWO) in 2010- (...)
  • 2 I refer here to Yona Waksman, Evelina Todorova, José Carvajal Lopez and Jacques Burlot.

3The evidence for this paper is taken from pottery finds from excavations in the Athenian Agora, which were studied for my VIDI research project with the title Material culture, consumption and social change: New approaches for understanding the Eastern Mediterranean during Byzantine and Ottoman times at Leiden University (NL).1 This project was carried out by a small research team, including Elli Tzavella, Yasemin Bağcı and several guest researchers.2 For this project we specifically studied long-term patterns concerning production, distribution, consumption and social changes that occurred in four coastal urban centres in the Eastern Mediterranean: Butrint, Athens, Ephesus and Tarsus (fig. 1). These four sites were chosen because of their long history of habitation and their geographical situation. Two of them were situated in the core area of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, and two on the western and eastern peripheries. As I focus in my paper on consumption in the Aegean area, I have chosen Athens as my case study here.

Fig. 1 – Map with the four key sites of the VIDI research project (J. Vroom).

Fig. 1 – Map with the four key sites of the VIDI research project (J. Vroom).

4One of the aims of the VIDI research project is to bring together archaeological artefacts, written documents and pictorial evidence as sources of information in order to build a web of arguments. This is a line of approach that can be very fruitful for Byzantine to Ottoman times, as I have shown in earlier publications (Vroom 1998a; 2000; 2003; 2007a; 2007b; 2011a). Indeed, the existence of certain patterns of dining or eating habits during these periods as seen in depictions showing meals appears to be supported by archaeological evidence. This is, for example, apparent in various dining scenes in Byzantine art. The vessels and cutlery shown in these scenes appear to be similar to contemporary excavated objects from Greece (Corinth), Serbia and the Crimea (Chersonesos), thus offering new insights into their use and into the social context of dining habits in Byzantine society (Vroom 2003, pp. 313‑321 & fig. 11.27; 2007, fig. 17.7, 17.12 & 17.13).

  • 3 “Early Byzantine” means here ca 7th-9th century, “Middle Byzantine” ca 10th-late 12th/early 13th c (...)

5In After Antiquity I have discussed in more detail the differences in table manners from Late Antiquity to Late Ottoman times (ca mid 7th to late 19th centuries), utilising a range of methods (Vroom 2003, pp. 303‑357). One of these was the measurement of rim and base diameters of tablewares from three different periods (ranging from “Middle Byzantine” to “Late Byzantine/Frankish” and then to “post-medieval” including the Ottoman and Venetian periods).3 This was carried out in order to investigate the use of open vessels in relation to consumption patterns in the Aegean region (Vroom 2003, pp. 229‑237, specifically tabl. 7.3; 2015, fig. 1; 2016, fig. 13.3).

6This idea was further expanded through analysis of twelve excavated contexts concerning four different periods in the Eastern Mediterranean in order to calculate the changes in height and volume of open vessels in the Byzantine tableware repertoire (Vroom 2015, fig. 5; 2016, fig. 13.5). As may be seen in figure 2, the height of these open vessels increased through the centuries (from Early Byzantine to Late Byzantine times), while their volume decreased enormously.

Fig. 2 – Average vessel height and volume of Byzantine table wares (in cm and cm3) (after Vroom 2015, fig. 5; 2016, fig. 13.5).

Fig. 2 – Average vessel height and volume of Byzantine table wares (in cm and cm3) (after Vroom 2015, fig. 5; 2016, fig. 13.5).

7This trend is even more striking when one studies the vessels depicted in the iconography of the period. Another perspective was thus to look at long-term changes in the depictions of eating habits and dining manners in relation to the corresponding table settings of the different periods in order to distinguish longue durée patterns of communal dining versus individual dining (fig. 3, an example of the Middle Byzantine period; Vroom 2015, fig. 7; 2016, fig. 13.7).

Fig. 3 – Dining scene and schematic table setting in Middle Byzantine times (after Vroom 2015, fig. 7; 2016, fig. 13.7; picture: miniature of Job’s Children, St. Catherine’s Monastery gr. 3, fol. 17v., Sinai, 11th century, after Vroom 2003, fig. 11.7).

Fig. 3 – Dining scene and schematic table setting in Middle Byzantine times (after Vroom 2015, fig. 7; 2016, fig. 13.7; picture: miniature of Job’s Children, St. Catherine’s Monastery gr. 3, fol. 17v., Sinai, 11th century, after Vroom 2003, fig. 11.7).

83D scanning and 3D printing also have much potential for the reconstruction of the use of medieval decorated tableware, as was demonstrated in the exhibition “Sgraffito-in-3D” in which I was involved.4 For this exhibition, which took place in 2008 at the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen in Rotterdam (NL), twenty-two sgraffito dishes of the museum’s collection were scanned with a CT-scanner in a local medical centre, after which seven were copied through the process of 3D-scanning and 3D-printing.5 Visitors to the 2008 exhibition could touch, pick up and manipulate the 3D-printed replicas in the museum. Furthermore, Augmented Reality installations offered the visitors tactile interaction and direct visual access through the 3D printed imitations in order for them to obtain background knowledge of the actual pots exhibited safely behind glass.

9Food also needs to be cooked, of course. Besides the study of glazed and decorated tableware, it has also been my intention to examine in great detail various cooking techniques, as food preparation often involved cooking. This has been accomplished through the study of fabric compositions, use marks on excavated pots and cooking techniques, in combination with pictorial or written evidence, if possible (Vroom 2008, pp. 299‑303, fig. 13 & tabl. 1). In the case of changing pottery shapes and related cooking techniques, this has been demonstrated for Brittle Ware cooking jars from south-eastern Turkey (Vroom 2009, fig. 8‑12; 2016, fig. 13.2). These pots showed slight shape changes from Roman to Late Antique-Umayyad times, and then suddenly a major alteration in the Early Abbasid period (Vroom 2016, fig. 13.2). In order to explain these shape changes, other sources concerning diet, such as archaeozoological research (the study of faunal remains) and written documents (culinary manuals from Antiquity and the Early Abbasid period) were consulted (Vroom 2009, pp. 242‑246, tabl. 2‑3 & fig. 14‑16; 2016, tabl. 13A-B; see also for the faunal study, Bartosiewicz 2005, tabl. 1‑3, fig. 4‑5).

10Another key aspect of our research was to examine patterns in diet: what were people consuming in the past? This was accomplished, for example, by seeking more information in cookery books by counting the main ingredients in recipes of the Late Antique, Islamic and medieval periods (Vroom 2009, pp. 245‑246, tabl. 3; 2016, tabl. 13.A‑B; see also Bagci & Vroom 2017). In addition, these data concerning the most frequent ingredients, taken from different documents, enable comparisons to be made between various periods and between various regions in the Mediterranean (Vroom 2011b, pp. 423‑425 & fig. 17‑18).

Byzantine household archaeology

11If only written texts, art and monuments are examined, it remains difficult to grasp the everyday activities of an “average” person in Byzantium. This is where archaeology, especially household archaeology, can play an important role through analysis of several lines of evidence to obtain a better understanding of the Byzantine past (e.g. Killebrew et al. 2003; Vroom 2007a).

12Household archaeology endeavours to utilise various types of evidence, as these different data can when brought together lead to a much richer understanding of the Byzantine past (fig. 4). Some written sources (such as medical texts, treatises on diet, regulations for Lent, commercial documents, travelogues, letters and poems) provide information on aspects of daily life (e.g. Koukoules 1948-1957; Bourbou & Richards 2007, p. 64; Koder 2007; 2014), for example, what people were eating and drinking, and which foods were forbidden during certain periods of the year because of fasting rules. Although these texts provide insight, it has to be remembered that they did not always reflect reality, being mostly written only for the literate groups within Byzantine society (such as the aristocracy, the army and the clergy).

Fig. 4 – Multiple lines of evidence in household archaeology (J. Vroom & M. Arntz). See also www.bijleveldbooks.nl/ResearchSeminar/introduction.html.

Fig. 4 – Multiple lines of evidence in household archaeology (J. Vroom & M. Arntz). See also www.bijleveldbooks.nl/ResearchSeminar/introduction.html.

13In addition, pictorial evidence of meals survives in Late Antique and Byzantine manuscripts, ivory diptychs, enamels, mosaics and frescos. Some of these frequently show scenes of everyday life in well-to-do households, informing us about the types of food these people ate, what pottery, utensils and furniture they used, but also about table manners and banquet customs with respect to wining and dining (Vroom 2003, pp. 303‑334; 2007a; 2007b). Although we must use caution in examining some of these dining scenes, the occasional reward lies in the details of the ways in which dishes and utensils are portrayed through the centuries (Vroom 2003, pp. 303‑309; 2011, pp. 420‑421).

14Artefact assemblages are, in general, groups of different objects found in the same excavated context. Such an assemblage is also described as “a group of artefacts recurring together at a particular time and place, and representing the sum of human activities” (Renfrew & Bahn 2008, p. 578). Besides being useful for reconstructing past activities, all such artefacts together are also useful as dating evidence in archaeological projects. The excavated remains or the architecture of houses enable us to further reconstruct how Byzantines existed in their daily lives (e.g. Bouras 1982-1983; Sigalos 2004; Türkoğlu 2004). The archaeological finds provide information concerning various activities in different parts of the house.

15Plant remains, animal bones and shells from botanical and faunal assemblages are sometimes preserved in the archaeological record, showing us what Byzantines were eating (Kotjabopoulou et al. 2003; Kroll 2010; 2012; Vroom 2018). Seeds and fruit stones (macro-remains) can be found in cesspits, and pollen and phytoliths (micro-remains) can also be analysed to inform us as to the plants used/consumed at a certain location (e.g. Megaloudi 2006).

16Micro-archaeological techniques, biomolecular or biochemical, can reveal components of organic materials associated with human activity that have survived in a wide variety of locations and deposits at archaeological sites and also on objects. These residues and traces, often not visible with the naked eye, can be studied through chemical and microscopic analyses (e.g. Pecci 2006; 2009; Mitchell & Tepper 2007; Anastasiou & Mitchell 2013). Finally, what we eat and drink leaves traces in our bones and teeth in the form of stable isotopes. Human bones and teeth recovered from archaeological sites can be analysed isotopically for information regarding diet and migration (Çağlar et al. 2007; Garvie-Lok 2001; Bourbou 2011; 2013; Bourbou et al. 2011; Bourbou & Richards 2007).

17Of course, all the above-mentioned types of evidence would exist together only in a perfect archaeological world, in ideal excavated contexts in which all this information is available (fig. 4).

Athens as a case study

18After describing the most ideal archaeological situation, we must return to reality: how are we able to carry out this kind of household archaeology in Byzantine cities? At present, I would like to tentatively explore some of the above-mentioned types of evidence by concentrating on finds from old excavations in the Athenian Agora. The dense habitation of the Byzantine period was excavated in this part of the city by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) between the years 1932 and 1938 (e.g. Frantz 1961).

  • 6 See for an earlier Agora study on Byzantine tableware, Frantz 1938.

19The excavated area of the Athenian Agora is situated in what was an industrial and commercial suburb west of the Byzantine fortification wall and thus not in the administrative centre of the city. We study the finds taken from the Agora material to investigate, among other things, changes in the shapes and sizes of glazed and unglazed utilitarian wares in this suburb through various periods: for example, from the Early Byzantine to the Middle Byzantine period, and eventually to the Late Byzantine/Frankish period, in order to distinguish long-term changes in eating habits and dining manners (e.g., Vroom 2013; 2019; Vroom & Tzavella 2017).6

  • 7 A more detailed interpretation of this assemblage will be published; see also Vroom & Tzavella 201 (...)

20Recently, a Late Medieval ceramic assemblage (ca late 13th-15th centuries) in the Agora material has been documented, including vessels for dining, drinking, serving food and pouring liquids that were found in a well outside the Byzantine fortification wall (Vroom & Tzavella 2017). Noteworthy in this assemblage are three imported vessels, a small bowl of so-called “Roulette Ware” from the Veneto region (Vroom 2014, pp. 132‑133), a painted dish of “Spanish Lustreware” from Valencia (Vroom 2014, pp. 134‑135), and a base fragment of “Archaic Maiolica” from Pisa painted with a heraldic device (coats-of-arms) on the inside (Berti & Tongiorgi 1977, pp. 58‑61). These three imported vessels are all small in size, only big enough for one portion, and were probably for personal rather than for communal use.7

21Various changes in table manners took place in the Eastern Mediterranean during this period, as may be seen in 14th and 15th-century painted dining scenes in examples of Late Byzantine art depicting diners seated at tables and on chairs and benches (Vroom 2003, pp. 321‑327; 2007b, pp. 200‑203, fig. 17.14‑17). We may conclude that the pictorial evidence, combined with the evidence provided by the actual artefacts from the Agora, demonstrates the beginning of a more elaborate western style of dining in small groups in Athens from Late Byzantine/Late medieval times onwards (Vroom 2003, pp. 329‑331 & tabl. 11.1). This change occurred at a different pace in different parts of the Eastern Mediterranean, but it must have reached Athens by the 14th and 15th centuries.

  • 8 At the moment about 40 unwashed sherds from coarse wares have been prepared for future analysis of (...)
  • 9 According to Bakirtzis (1989, pp. 110‑111, 135), “pithoi were large vessels stored in pithones and (...)
  • 10 See also the pithoi in the Agora drawing of “section MM”: www.agathe.gr (accessed 10/12/2019, Agor (...)

22Besides tableware, dining habits and table settings, we have also been examining Byzantine utilitarian vessels (such as cooking pots and jars) within the Agora repertoire. These cooking utensils are studied in combination with petrographical analysis of their fabrics, and the organic residues from their contents are expected to be analysed in the future.8 Furthermore, the presence of ovens, wells and large storage jars (known in Greek as a “pithoi”, “pitharia” or “pithopoula”) may indicate the function of food preparation or storage room for certain spaces in a house.9 The areas below many excavated courtyard-style houses in the Athenian Agora contained storage vessels (pithoi) of various sizes, which were usually set into the ground (Shear 1984, p. 52 & fig. 17‑18; 1997, pp. 523, 531‑532, fig. 9, pl. 15: a).10

Pithoi in the agora

23In order to obtain a glimpse of household archaeology in Byzantine towns and in order to visualize the location of pithoi in domestic structures, we have created a 2D map and 3D reconstruction of three houses in one complex in the Athenian Agora (located in section MM), showing several interesting characteristics (Vroom & Boswinkel 2016, fig. 4, 5). A number of installations can thus be identified in several phases of the complex, which included not only pithoi but also basins, cesspits (bothroi), wells and funerary structures (ostotheke). As may be seen in figure 5, most pithoi were concentrated on the eastern side of the complex, and particularly in two rooms in the northwest part of the eastern house structure (Vroom & Boswinkel 2016, fig. 6).

Fig. 5 – Athenian Agora: house structures in section MM with location of masonry and ceramic pithoi (after Vroom & Boswinkel 2016, fig. 6).

Fig. 5 – Athenian Agora: house structures in section MM with location of masonry and ceramic pithoi (after Vroom & Boswinkel 2016, fig. 6).
  • 11 In particular fig. 38, where the two pithos types in this Agora house complex can be clearly disti (...)
  • 12 See for a similar-looking example, Bakirtzis 1989, pl. 53a. Apparently, complete marble pithoi wer (...)

24The pithoi in this complex can be subdivided into two types. They are either built with ceramic sherds/tiles and fieldstones set in a hard lime mortar, or large ceramic vessels (Vroom & Kondyli 2011, pp. 34‑35).11 There are 17 masonry-built pithoi (63%) and 10 terracotta pithoi (37%) in the complex. There appears to have been a preference for the masonry-built pithoi, as they represent almost two-thirds of all the pithoi in the three houses (fig. 5).12 This may have to do with the fact that these pithoi are, on average, larger than the ceramic ones.

  • 13 During the 1930s excavations in the Athenian Agora, pithoi were recovered with such lids, tiles an (...)

25Both pithos types were found throughout the three buildings, and in all the identified phases. Their bottoms were sometimes made flat to enable them to stand easily and to stabilize their weight (Vroom 2003, p. 157; Grünbart 2007, p. 40); handles are sometimes present on their external upper parts. The vessels have a wide flat rim in order to be closed by either a square stone slab, a broken tile or a lid (made of stone, wood or earthenware) (Frantz 1961, p. 17; Vroom 2003, p. 157 & fig. 6.13 [W 14.33]).13

  • 14 According to Evi Margaritis (2006, p. 26), archaeobotanical remains from Byzantine contexts in the (...)
  • 15 Bakirtzis 1989, p. 115; Rheidt 1990, p. 199; 2002, p. 628; Grünbart 2007, p. 40, n. 7‑8, who menti (...)

26Both types were made impermeable, suggesting that they could have been used to store liquids (such as olive oil,14 wine, vinegar or water) as well as solid foods (grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, salted fish and meat).15 Chemical analyses of organic residues carried out at Pergamon, for example, indicated the presence on the interior of distilled pine or cypress resin, used to seal these containers and as a preservative in stored wine (Rheidt 1990, p. 199 & n. 23 with further literature; 2002, p. 628 & fig. 4). Furthermore, surviving remains of food stored in these vessels can provide information on the diet of the people using them. Of particular interest is a pithos from Byzantine layers at Pessinus in central Turkey, which contained cereal grains, barley, wheat, peas and lentils, Gallium and Atriplex (Van Peteghem & Braeckman 2003, pp. 165‑168).

  • 16 The volume is a rough estimate; see Vroom & Boswinkel 2016.
  • 17 Vroom & Kondyli 2011, fig. 38; see Rheidt 1990, p. 198 and Grünbart 2007, p. 40 for excavated pith (...)

27The differences between the two types of pithos in the Agora complex concern quantity and size (tabl. 1a-b). The diameters of the stone-built pithoi are on average 54% larger, and the pithoi are 36% taller and could therefore contain more volume.16 It is conceivable that it was easier to create larger pithoi using stone masonry than it was to create large ceramic ones. Many pithoi in the Agora are equal to or taller than human height.17 The height and diameter of these pithoi can indeed reach 2 meters, allowing them to contain up to ca 2,000 litres.

 

Tabl. 1a-b – Athenian Agora, section MM: dimensions of masonry built and ceramic pithoi (after Vroom & Boswinkel 2016, tabl. 2‑3).

Masonry Max_Diam (m) Mouth_Diam (m) Height (m) Volume (m3)
EP13 1.40 0.75 1.55 1.13
EP12 1.53 0.60 2.20 1.76
EP02 1.37 0.5 1.65 1.07
EP03 1.40 0.58 1.88 1.29
EP04 1.80 0.60 2.08 2.21
EP11 1.50 0.60 1.50 1.16
EP10 0.68 0.45 1.06 0.21
EP15 1.10 0.45 1.55 0.97
CP02 1.30 0.52 1.65 1.66
CP01 1.65 1.85 1.51
EP08 1.40 0.53 2.25 1.67
WP04 2.00 - 1.67 -
WP06 1.25 - - -
WP03 1.30 - - -
Average 1.39 0.56 1.74 1.39
         
Ceramic Max_Diam (m) Mouth_Diam (m) Height (m) Volume (m3)
WP01 0.67 0.50 1.09 0.22
EP09 1.05 0.50 1.50 0.64
EP07 0.47 0.27 0.56 0.06
EP01 0.64 - -  
EP14 0.70 - -  
EP05 1.35 0.56 1.57 1.00
EP06 1.30 0.60 1.64 1.00
WP05 0.82 0.40 1.31 0.34
WP02 1.10 - -  
Average 0.90 0.47 1.28 0.54

 

28The Athenian pithoi were all placed in the ground and sunk just below the house floor level with only the opening protruding (fig. 5). This arrangement provided not only a dry, cool environment and a constant temperature ideal for storage, but also protected their contents from harmful external agents (such as rodents or insects). Pithoi were not only discovered in domestic contexts, but also in areas of industrial or commercial activities. Furthermore, written documents mention that pithoi were used in the houses of laymen or monks living in the countryside in order to store the year’s harvest in this way (Oikonomides 1990, p. 211 & n. 47).

  • 18 Extra decorative elements were sometimes added to Byzantine and medieval pithoi, including incised (...)
  • 19 Vroom 2003, p. 157, fig. 6.11‑13 (W14.24‑27, W14.29‑31, W14.34), including a ceramic lid fragment (...)

29Ceramic pithoi (both complete ones and fragments) were recovered in urban and monastic centres and in fortresses, as well as in the countryside.18 In Greece they have so far been found at Corinth (Scranton 1957, pl. 18.2; Williams & Zervos 1988, p. 101, fig. 6), Argos (Bouras 1982-1983, pp. 12, 14 & fig. 8, mentions a ground floor with “large storage jars”), Chalkis (Vroom, personal observation), Panakton (Gerstel et al. 2003, pp. 163‑164, fig. 11, no. 19), and on rural sites in surveyed areas such as Boeotia,19 Laconia (Armstrong 1996, pp. 138‑140, fig. 17.11‑12), Thessaly and on the islands of Kythera and Antikythera (Vroom, personal observation for Thessaly, Kythera & Antikythera). In Turkey they were discovered at, among other sites, Pergamon (Rheidt 1990; 2002), Ephesus (Vroom, personal observation), Hierapolis/Pamukkale (Cottica 2007, p. 363, fig. 12), Pessinus (Devreker et al. 2003, fig. 18‑19), Amorium (Böhlendorf-Arslan 2010, p. 355, fig. 9.5), Avkat (Vroom, personal observation), but also more to the east in medieval settlements near the Euphrates river (Alvaro et al. 2004, fig. 14 with further literature). In regions around the Black Sea, pithoi were recovered from storerooms of houses in Chersonesos (Yakobson 1979, pp. 114‑115, fig. 70‑71; see also Bakirtzis 1989, pl. 30.4 & 31.1‑3; Teslenko 2009, p. 878), as well as in Gotsarnoe, Poliana and Sevastopol (Bakirtzis 1989, pl. 30.1‑3). In Cyprus, they were very frequent in the Late Medieval and later periods on the island, seen in the 14th-century inventory of the goods of the Latin bishop of Limassol Guy d’Ibelin, which mentions various cellars with “pitares” full of ruby-red wine in his Nicosia lodge (Coureas 2014, pp. 249‑251; see also François 2016, pp. 166‑171 for the production and use of pithoi on Cyprus).

  • 20 More examples of this group appear to have been found during surveys in Abkhazia.
  • 21 Similar-looking vessels were according to her also recovered in 12th-13th-century layers in Cherso (...)
  • 22 More analogous examples of this group were apparently found at the medieval palace complex of Lihn (...)

30Although it remains difficult to create a typology of pithoi shapes due to their long period of use (mostly they are either ovoid or globular), an attempt has been made by identifying three main morphological shapes in the southern Crimea (Teslenko 2009, pp. 870‑878). These three groups of pithoi were discovered in 14th-15th-century contexts in two medieval fortifications (in Phoona about 40 examples and in Aluston another 100), and they appear to have been made and used next to each other in different centuries. The elongated ovoid jars in Irina Teslenko’s group I already began to appear in the 8th-10th centuries, and according to her remained in use for 500‑600 years (Teslenko 2009, pp. 870‑872, 876‑878, fig. 2‑4).20 The spherical jars in her group II appear to have been manufactured in the 12th-13th centuries, and could have served for 250‑300 years (Teslenko 2009, pp. 872‑874, 878, fig. 5‑9).21 The “wine pitchers” in her group III were dated by her to the 14th-15th centuries, and may have circulated for 150‑180 years until the Turkish occupation of the Peninsula in 1475 (Teslenko 2009, pp. 874‑875, fig. 9‑11).22

31That pithoi were used for a long period of time is also revealed by a reference in the 1247 will of the donor of the Theotokos Koteine Monastery in Greece. In this document “thirty ancient pitharia” were mentioned, showing that these storage jars were not replaced in this convent until they were completely useless (Giannopoulou 2010, p. 45). From archaeological contexts we know of broken pithoi that were not discarded but repaired with lead clamps (Giannopoulou 2010, p. 45). These repaired jars could have been reused as containers for dry goods (such as grain), for burials (particularly for infants and young children), or as waste containers filled with discarded objects (Vroom & Kondyli 2011, p. 35; Giannopoulou 2010, p. 45). In the Athenian Agora, Byzantine pithoi were occasionally recycled up to Ottoman and even recent times. For example, each time a new house floor was built, the neck of a pithos was raised to match the higher floor level, so that the (new) owners could continue to use the jar. In other cases, new pithoi would be built in the same location as demolished older ones (Vroom & Kondyli 2011, p. 35).

  • 23 See for the latest translation, by Dalby: Geoponica.

32An important written source for our understanding about the function of pithoi in Byzantine society is the Geoponica, a 10th-century collection concerning “agricultural pursuits” compiled in Constantinople for the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (905‑959) from earlier treatises.23 Book VI in particular in this anthology provides valuable instructions on the making and distribution of pithoi, on their exact placement in storerooms and on their appropriate maintenance. The manuscript makes clear that pithoi should be kept in a dry environment, and placed in such a way that they do not touch each other (Bakirtzis 1989, p. 116; Teslenko 2009, pp. 878‑879; Giannopoulou 2010, p. 44; François 2016, pp. 165‑166). In order to prevent humidity and damp penetrating from the surrounding earth, pottery sherds or tiles were sometimes embedded in a kind of lime cement onto the outer surfaces of the pithos wall, as in the case of the above-mentioned Agora examples.

33The shapes of large storage jars (which appear to be pithoi) can be observed in various Byzantine frescoes, mosaics and miniatures (e.g. Bakirtzis 1989, pl. 49‑50; Anagnostakis & Papamastorakis 2005, fig. 9‑13; Giannopoulou 2010, p. 44 & n. 263 with further literature). The most well-known examples in Byzantine art are the six jars depicted on the “Wedding at Cana” vault mosaic in the Church of the Chora Monastery (Kariye Camii) in Istanbul (fig. 6) (Bakirtzis 1989, pl. 40a). This 14th-century mosaic depicts the storing and pouring of liquid for later consumption in large brown-coloured vessels having short narrow necks and distinct rims, whose profiles look very similar to the shapes of the excavated pithoi in the Agora. Other scenes of the “Wedding at Cana” even depict the taking of wine or water from pithoi using implements, such as a thin rod or reed, for the testing and tasting of wine (Anagnostakis & Papamastorakis 2005, pp. 154‑159, fig. 8‑15).

Fig. 6 – Picture of 14th-century vault mosaic with “Wedding at Cana” scene from the Chora Monastery in Istanbul (photo: J. Vroom).

Fig. 6 – Picture of 14th-century vault mosaic with “Wedding at Cana” scene from the Chora Monastery in Istanbul (photo: J. Vroom).

Additional information

34In order to provide additional information on the pithoi in section MM, I present here the other pottery finds from this house complex. According to the data from the three structures in section MM, the pottery finds can be roughly dated to the Early Byzantine (EB/MB), Middle Byzantine (MB/MB) and Late Byzantine/Frankish periods (MB/LB) (fig. 7). In total, 709 entries were recorded in the database, containing 2,614 sherds with a combined weight of about 105 kg. The focus of our research was to reveal any trends and observable differences between the different assemblages of the three houses during the three periods.

Fig. 7 – Athenian Agora: pottery finds from section MM, divided by function and period. Percentages of categories compared to totals of that period are shown in columns, absolute numbers in the table.

Fig. 7 – Athenian Agora: pottery finds from section MM, divided by function and period. Percentages of categories compared to totals of that period are shown in columns, absolute numbers in the table.

EB/MB = Early Byzantine (Middle Byzantine) period; MB/MB = Middle Byzantine period; MB/LB = (Middle Byzantine) Late Byzantine period. TW = Tablewares; CW = Coarse Wares; LU = Light Utility Wares; HU = Heavy Utility Wares; Amp = Amphorae; Other = Other Wares (J. Vroom & M. Arntz).

  • 24 These are mostly unglazed vessels for pouring and serving liquids, such as jugs.

35The pottery finds were also divided by function, including “amphorae” (Amp), “coarse wares” (CW), “heavy utility wares” (HU), “light utility wares” (LU),24 “tablewares” (TW) and “other” (Other). This last category comprised all the ceramics that did not fit in any other categories, such as oil lamps and candle sticks. Figure 7 shows clearly that the earliest period produced more coarse wares (CW), whereas for the later periods (the Middle Byzantine period, and even more so the Late Byzantine/Frankish period) we observe higher quantities of tableware (TW).

36In order to attribute the finds discovered within the three Agora houses in section MM, five locations were created: “west”, “middle” and “east”, and two squares outside these three structures: “middle/west” and “east/middle” (fig. 8 above). For the Late Byzantine/Frankish period (MB/LB) the amount of pottery in the middle house is much less, whereas there is a good quantity of ceramics in the eastern and western houses. Furthermore, if we observe the east/middle and middle/west areas in between the houses (fig. 8 below), we observe that they follow the general trends of the three houses. In the Late Byzantine/Frankish period (MB/LB) only tablewares are found in these areas, hardly any other type of pottery (including amphorae and coarse wares).

Fig. 8 – Athenian Agora: Section MM per building: pottery divided by function, period and find locations. Absolute numbers are shown in the columns.

Fig. 8 – Athenian Agora: Section MM per building: pottery divided by function, period and find locations. Absolute numbers are shown in the columns.

EB/MB = Early Byzantine (Middle Byzantine) period; MB/MB = Middle Byzantine period; MB/LB = (Middle Byzantine) Late Byzantine period. TW = Tablewares; CW = Coarse Wares; LU = Light Utility Wares; HU = Heavy Utility Wares; Amp = Amphorae; Other = Other Wares (J. Vroom & M. Arntz).

  • 25 See for a wooden barrel from a monastic context in Serres, Bakirtzis 1989, pl. 53b.

37Written sources provide us with some clues about what could be found inside Byzantine houses, such as those in the Agora. Wills and acts of transfer often present extensive lists of household items: from cupboards to pots and pans (Oikonimides 1990). Eating habits were simple: people shared plates and cups, seldom used cutlery, and ate from permanent or foldable tables on stools or long benches (tabl. 2). Household equipment for serving purposes included bottles, pitchers, carafes, dishes, plates and cups, which were made of clay or wood, but less often of metal. Just as today, there were many sorts of kitchen utensils (tabl. 2). These included cauldrons, kettles, pans, grills, pot hangers and tripods (used as bases for clay cooking pots), which were all made of metal. Finally, large jars (such as pithoi) and wooden barrels were used for storage.25

 

Tabl. 2 – Some examples of Byzantine household items mentioned in written documents (after Oikonomides 1990).

Serving equipment
Bottles or pitchers (sometimes made of metal)
Water/wine carafes (sometimes made of silver, copper or glass)
Big serving plates (made of copper or silver)
Deep, flat plates (made of earthenware or wood)
Cups
Glasses (mostly only in monasteries)
Spoons
Kitchenware
Kettles
Frying pans
Cauldrons
Saucepans
Grills
Pot hangers
Tripods
Large jars
Barrels
Table setting
Tables: sometimes permanent with 4 legs, sometimes foldable and placed on trestles
Stools or chairs
Long benches (or couches)

 

38This makes it clear that we should be aware of the “missing artefacts” in the studied pottery assemblages from the Agora. It is important to keep in mind that part of the utensils and wares used for cooking, storing, drinking and eating were probably made of non-ceramic materials (e.g. wood, leather, basketry, silver or other metals; see for instance, Vroom 1998b, pp. 150‑159). These perishable objects are now mostly lost and with them, crucial knowledge regarding Byzantine and medieval eating customs in Athenian houses.

39However, is it possible to obtain some idea as to what the Byzantines were preparing and serving in these pots and pans, and what they were eating? The staples in the Byzantine diet were apparently cereals (mostly wheat and barley), olive oil and wine (tabl. 3) (e.g. Bourbou et al. 2011; Bourbou 2013; Koder 2014). These were supplemented by legumes, meat, fish, dairy products, wild greens, nuts and honey, as the written sources inform us (Vroom 1998a, p. 541; 2003, p. 330; Koder 2007; 2014; Bourbou 2011). Vegetables and fruits were consumed dried, pickled or salted. Garum (fermented fish sauce) was often used to add savour to the prepared dishes; honey was a sweetener (tabl. 3).

 

Tabl. 3 – List of food cited in written sources (after Bourbou et al. 2011; Koder 2014).

Shopping list for a household in the Byzantine period
Grain: wheat and barley (bread), millet, oats and rye
Legumes: broad beans, lentils, chickpeas, vetch, lupin
Meat: sheep, goat (main), pig and cattle
Game and birds
Chicken and eggs
Fish (dried & salted), shellfish
Dairy products: cheese, trachanas
Fruits: grapes, figs, melon
Vegetables: celery, leek, lettuce, cress, endive, spinach, turnip, eggplant, cabbage, kohlrabi, cauliflower
Wild plants & nuts: almonds, chestnuts, pistachios, walnuts and pine cone seeds
Flavours: salt, pepper, garum
Honey
Edible fats: (olive) oil, butter
Beverages: wine, water, vinegar

 

40Of course there is no such thing as “the Byzantine diet”; diets varied from region to region and were also dependent upon a person’s economic position and religious views (Koder 2014, p. 427). The use of meat or fish in cuisines of the past, especially the quantities in which they were used, was an important indicator for a higher level of luxury (Vroom 2000, p. 206; Redford 2015, pp. 252‑253). Written texts inform us further about many religious rules, restrictions (such as fasting) and taboos surrounding food (particularly animal products) for monks and nuns (Vroom, forthcoming). However, the extent to which these rules applied to other individuals and households in urban and rural contexts remains difficult to determine.

Conclusion

41Using different viewpoints, I propose in this paper new perspectives for studying people, pottery and food in the medieval Mediterranean. One new angle is the use of an approach through household archaeology, incorporating several types of evidence in order to investigate food and eating habits in the Byzantine period. Athens was chosen as a case study in the Aegean area for this purpose, being one of the four sites within my VIDI research project.

42Thus, we may obtain a preliminary idea of a household complex (consisting of three house structures) in an urban neighbourhood in the Athenian Agora situated in the industrial and commercial suburb west of the Byzantine city centre. The study of these finds included not only glazed tableware but also unglazed utilitarian ceramics ranging from Early Byzantine to Ottoman times, among which are 27 large storage jars (pithoi) set into the ground within the household complex.

43In combination with the other finds, written texts and pictorial evidence, an attempt is made to portray the use of these pithoi in the Athenian households and to show the importance of these storage jars in Byzantine daily life. Apparently there were two pithos types in the Agora: ceramic and masonry-built ones, which differed in quantity and size. Visualisation of the location of these pithoi in the houses showed that these multi-functional containers were used for a long period of time and probably even recycled. They were undoubtedly used to store large quantities of liquids and solid foods, among which were olive oil, wine and grain – the staples of Byzantine diet.

44However, the Agora houses were not used solely for storage, because glazed tableware and pithoi were found together in the same structures. Furthermore, the pithoi were not contained in a single room, but were located in several rooms and even in the courtyard. It must have been quite inconvenient to use the ground floor in these houses for domestic activities. Perhaps the latter took place on a second floor, while the ground level was used for commercial or agricultural purposes in this industrial suburb, as well as keeping the products in the pithoi safe for the daily food necessities of these Athenian households.

Acknowledgements

45First of all, I would like to thank the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) for the use of their data and notebooks from the excavations in the Athenian Agora. In particular, I would like to thank Professor John McK. Camp II, Director of the Agora Excavations, for permission to study and publish the Byzantine to Ottoman ceramic finds. Special thanks go to his Agora team for their support. Furthermore, I warmly thank Elli Tzavella, Yannick Boswinkel and Monique Arntz for their help with figures 4, 5, 7 and 8. Finally, I would like to thank the Netherlands Organisation of Scientific Research (NWO) and the Netherlands Institute at Athens (NIA) for their support of my research in Athens during the previous years.

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Vroom, forthcoming: Vroom J., “Food taboo or not food taboo, that is the question: Changing cooking pots in south-eastern Turkey and northern Syria (c. 3rd-9th centuries’)”, in B. Caseau, H. Monchot (ed.), Religions et interdits alimentaires. Archéozoologie et sources littéraires, Colloque international, 3‑5 avril 2014, Paris, forthcoming.

Vroom & Boswinkel 2016: Vroom J., Boswinkel Y., “New dimensions in archaeology: 2D and 3D visualisations of Byzantine structures and their contents in the Athenian Agora”, Pharos 22/2, 2016 (appeared 2019), pp. 87‑114.

Vroom & Kondyli 2011: Vroom J., Kondyli F., Life among ruins: Greece and Turkey between past and present / Leven tussen brokstukken. Griekenland en Turkije tussen verleden und heden, Utrecht, 2011.

Vroom & Tzavella 2017: Vroom J., Tzavella E., “Dinner time in Athens: Eating and drinking in the medieval Agora”, in J. Vroom, Y. Waksman, R. van Oosten (ed.), Medieval MasterChef. Archaeological and historical perspectives on eastern cuisine and western foodways, Turnhout, 2017, pp. 145‑180.

Williams & Zervos 1988: Williams Ch.K. II, Zervos O.H., “Corinth 1987: South of Temple E and east of the theater”, Hesperia 57, 1988, pp. 100‑106.

Yakobson 1979: Якобсон А.Л. [= Yakobson A.L.], Керамика и керамическое производства средневековой Таврики [= Pottery and pottery production in medieval Taurica], Leningrad, 1979.

Notes

1 This VIDI project was funded by the Netherlands Organisation of Scientific Research (NWO) in 2010-2015; see for the project’s approach, Vroom 2013.

2 I refer here to Yona Waksman, Evelina Todorova, José Carvajal Lopez and Jacques Burlot.

3 “Early Byzantine” means here ca 7th-9th century, “Middle Byzantine” ca 10th-late 12th/early 13th century, “Late Byzantine/Frankish” ca 13th-15th century; see Vroom 2003, pp. 26‑29.

4 I would like to thank Alexandra Gaba-van Dongen and Joachim Rotteveel for their collaboration.

5 See www.sgraffito-in-3d.com/en/research/item/sgraffito (accessed 10/12/2019).

6 See for an earlier Agora study on Byzantine tableware, Frantz 1938.

7 A more detailed interpretation of this assemblage will be published; see also Vroom & Tzavella 2017.

8 At the moment about 40 unwashed sherds from coarse wares have been prepared for future analysis of organic residues.

9 According to Bakirtzis (1989, pp. 110‑111, 135), “pithoi were large vessels stored in pithones and could not be moved once they had been placed in position, while pitharia, which were similar in shape but smaller in size, could be more easily moved and transported”.

10 See also the pithoi in the Agora drawing of “section MM”: www.agathe.gr (accessed 10/12/2019, Agora Drawing: PD 1169 [DA 132]: Byzantine House; section MM, nb. p. 506).

11 In particular fig. 38, where the two pithos types in this Agora house complex can be clearly distinguished.

12 See for a similar-looking example, Bakirtzis 1989, pl. 53a. Apparently, complete marble pithoi were also used in domestic and monastic contexts, as shown in Bakirtzis 1989, pl. 51a-b and Pitarakis 2012, pp. 414‑415, fig. 16.12, who mentions that inscriptions on these marble vessels refer to measurements of liquid capacity or xestēs (from the Roman sextarius), among which one of “three hundred and fifty-five xestai”.

13 During the 1930s excavations in the Athenian Agora, pithoi were recovered with such lids, tiles and stone slabs on top.

14 According to Evi Margaritis (2006, p. 26), archaeobotanical remains from Byzantine contexts in the Athenian Agora include several hundred complete and fragmented carbonized olive stones, which possibly represent “the by-products of olive oil production”.

15 Bakirtzis 1989, p. 115; Rheidt 1990, p. 199; 2002, p. 628; Grünbart 2007, p. 40, n. 7‑8, who mentions dried fruits such as figs and raisins being stored in pithoi; Giannopoulou 2010, p. 44.

16 The volume is a rough estimate; see Vroom & Boswinkel 2016.

17 Vroom & Kondyli 2011, fig. 38; see Rheidt 1990, p. 198 and Grünbart 2007, p. 40 for excavated pithoi in Pergamon and Corinth that can measure up to 1.50 m high and are able to hold about 100 to 1,100 litres.

18 Extra decorative elements were sometimes added to Byzantine and medieval pithoi, including incised, painted, stamped or thumb-impressed decoration and applied bands.

19 Vroom 2003, p. 157, fig. 6.11‑13 (W14.24‑27, W14.29‑31, W14.34), including a ceramic lid fragment for a pithos in fig. 6.11 (W14.33).

20 More examples of this group appear to have been found during surveys in Abkhazia.

21 Similar-looking vessels were according to her also recovered in 12th-13th-century layers in Chersonesos, in the northern Caucasus and as cargo in the late 13th century “Novy Svet” shipwreck near Sudak.

22 More analogous examples of this group were apparently found at the medieval palace complex of Lihna in Abkhazia.

23 See for the latest translation, by Dalby: Geoponica.

24 These are mostly unglazed vessels for pouring and serving liquids, such as jugs.

25 See for a wooden barrel from a monastic context in Serres, Bakirtzis 1989, pl. 53b.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 – Map with the four key sites of the VIDI research project (J. Vroom).
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/10209/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 572k
Titre Fig. 2 – Average vessel height and volume of Byzantine table wares (in cm and cm3) (after Vroom 2015, fig. 5; 2016, fig. 13.5).
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/10209/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 112k
Titre Fig. 3 – Dining scene and schematic table setting in Middle Byzantine times (after Vroom 2015, fig. 7; 2016, fig. 13.7; picture: miniature of Job’s Children, St. Catherine’s Monastery gr. 3, fol. 17v., Sinai, 11th century, after Vroom 2003, fig. 11.7).
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/10209/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,2M
Titre Fig. 4 – Multiple lines of evidence in household archaeology (J. Vroom & M. Arntz). See also www.bijleveldbooks.nl/ResearchSeminar/introduction.html.
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/10209/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 157k
Titre Fig. 5 – Athenian Agora: house structures in section MM with location of masonry and ceramic pithoi (after Vroom & Boswinkel 2016, fig. 6).
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/10209/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 287k
Titre Fig. 6 – Picture of 14th-century vault mosaic with “Wedding at Cana” scene from the Chora Monastery in Istanbul (photo: J. Vroom).
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/10209/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 2,4M
Titre Fig. 7 – Athenian Agora: pottery finds from section MM, divided by function and period. Percentages of categories compared to totals of that period are shown in columns, absolute numbers in the table.
Légende EB/MB = Early Byzantine (Middle Byzantine) period; MB/MB = Middle Byzantine period; MB/LB = (Middle Byzantine) Late Byzantine period. TW = Tablewares; CW = Coarse Wares; LU = Light Utility Wares; HU = Heavy Utility Wares; Amp = Amphorae; Other = Other Wares (J. Vroom & M. Arntz).
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/10209/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 343k
Titre Fig. 8 – Athenian Agora: Section MM per building: pottery divided by function, period and find locations. Absolute numbers are shown in the columns.
Légende EB/MB = Early Byzantine (Middle Byzantine) period; MB/MB = Middle Byzantine period; MB/LB = (Middle Byzantine) Late Byzantine period. TW = Tablewares; CW = Coarse Wares; LU = Light Utility Wares; HU = Heavy Utility Wares; Amp = Amphorae; Other = Other Wares (J. Vroom & M. Arntz).
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/10209/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 334k

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