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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

The biocultural model applied

Synthesizing research on Greek Byzantine diet (7th‑15th century AD)

Chryssa Bourbou

Résumé

The study of the physical remains (bones and teeth) left behind upon the death of an individual offers insights into lifestyle, demography, health and disease patterns (palaeopathology), as well as diet. Expanding research in the field of Byzantine bioarchaeology has shifted the focus from church and crown to the dirt and dust of everyday life, intertwining several of these issues. In this paper a brief overview is presented concerning the current studies of Greek Byzantine dietary patterns (7th-15th century AD), using a biocultural model. Such a multidisciplinary approach, combining different data sets (i.e. documentary evidence, anthropological and chemical analysis), provides us with a wealth of information on the complex interaction between physiology, culture and the environment, and offers new perspectives for future dietary studies on Greek Byzantine populations.

Texte intégral

Introduction

1A Beninese proverb captures a fundamental truth: “There is no god like one’s stomach; we must sacrifice to it every day.” The foods consumed (diet) and their nutritional component (nutrition) play an important role in the maintenance of a healthy organism. But food, besides being a biological need and an indicator of health and disease within a given population, may also reflect social and cultural values; for example, specific dietary choices may play a significant role in social stratification or settlement patterns. Thus to understand specific aspects of life in the past, such as the dietary choices of populations within specific geographic regions and time periods, a multidimensional approach is required, since information on diet crosses different disciplinary boundaries. This fact is well understood by researchers who are currently drawing relevant information from diverse fields in their attempt to reconstruct past dietary patterns. In particular, the study of human skeletal remains has been a major contribution to the investigation of past diet and nutrition, providing significant information on the association between diet and culture, health and mortality patterns.

2Such a multidisciplinary approach to the diet of Greek Byzantine populations (7th-15th century AD) has been extensively published by the author and in collaboration with other specialists during recent years (see i.e. Bourbou et al. 2011; 2013; Bourbou 2013; Bourbou & Gravie-Lock 2015). It is beyond the scope of this paper to present data already published elsewhere; this contribution offers rather an overview of the results that have been obtained, with a special focus on the contribution of chemical analysis to the reconstruction of dietary patterns, as well as future perspectives.

The biocultural model of diet

3Life in the past has been primarily reconstructed and interpreted using archaeological and documentary evidence. However, the reconstruction of diet based solely on literary evidence, for example, has its limitations. Medical texts, which have been widely utilized to investigate past diets, represent what their authors believed to have been the best practice, rather than common practice. Their applicability must be also considered in the light of the fact that they were usually socially selective and biased towards elite members of the society.

  • 1 It should be noted that a long time passed before studies of human remains, initially presented pe (...)

4The physical remains of people are a very distinctive part of the archaeological record because they are the only remnants of humans as biological entities and provide direct evidence for the complex interaction between a given environmental and cultural setting. Written in bones and teeth is evidence concerning health and disease, dietary history and lifestyle, to name but a few of the insights offered by their study. Bioarchaeology is the study of human skeletal remains retrieved from archaeological contexts, interpreted together with the available archaeological and historical data, as well as the environmental and cultural specifics of the population in question.1 During recent decades, methodological advances in the study of human skeletal remains have made it possible to obtain significant information that was not previously so readily available, i.e. the application of stable isotope analysis to reconstruct dietary patterns. Bioarchaeologists are thus able to apply a biocultural model of investigation in which a focused approach to data collection from human remains is linked to the most influential factors: environment and culture. Such a model yields direct information on the human condition, systemically organizes the available information and considerably enhances our ability to use it as a proxy for the world lived in by the people under study. Furthermore, this model can be as dynamic, diverse and non-static as the researcher applies extra features that might be available, thus being a very important methodological tool for going beyond merely descriptive studies.

When different lines of investigation meet: reconstructing Greek Byzantine diet

  • 2 For thorough reviews on stable isotope analysis in archaeological populations, see Katzenberg 2012 (...)

5During the last decade the biocultural model has been applied to the study of Greek Byzantine diet, providing strong evidence that the investigation of different data sets offers a more holistic approach than individual studies alone. As such, data extracted primarily from anthropological analysis (especially palaeopathology), documentary evidence, and chemical analysis – mainly stable isotope analysis of carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) – have been used and combined.2 A significant input to the subject is provided by the study of faunal and floral archaeological assemblages, although the quantity consumed or the importance of each species in the diet is not always clear; unfortunately, such studies from Greek Byzantine sites are still limited to a handful (Bourbou 2013; forthcoming a).

6In this overview I will primarily discuss the data obtained by isotopic analysis on the dietary choices of nine Byzantine populations (adult and non-adult segments) derived from archaeological contexts in Greece, including coastal and inland sites, both urban and rural, throughout the country (fig. 1). This clarification is essential since that which we define as the “Byzantine Empire” is actually a mosaic of peoples and cultures in a wide geographical area, and thus a broad understanding of the “Byzantine diet” strictly refers to this specific region. Nevertheless, even if this limitation is applied, reconstructing dietary patterns is a complex task; economic changes, differential access to products based on social discrimination, availability or seasonality of foods, awareness of the quality and importance of a specific regimen are some of the factors that must be taken into account.

Fig. 1 – Map of Greek Byzantine sites subjected to up-to-date stable isotope analysis for the reconstruction of dietary patterns.

Fig. 1 – Map of Greek Byzantine sites subjected to up-to-date stable isotope analysis for the reconstruction of dietary patterns.

7Beyond the luxurious meals of the royal and ecclesiastical elite, ordinary people would presumably have had to depend on a more humble diet (Bourbou et al. 2011; Bourbou 2013; forthcoming a). Data obtained from the isotopic analysis of 162 adult individuals are presented in table 1 and figure 2. The δ13C (mean range: -18.2 to -19.2‰) and δ15N (mean range: 8.2 to 9.5‰) values are similar enough to indicate the existence of a general “Byzantine diet”. The isotopic data also demonstrate no differential access to food products by gender and this is an interesting find, taking into account that a close association between fasting and sexual abstinence, applying to females, is highlighted in the written sources of the early Christian tradition (see, i.e. Bourbou 2010, pp. 139, 152). In addition, although samples were obtained from nine archaeological sites of presumably different specifics, spanning a period of approximately 900 years, when considered by period the small magnitude of the differences between the carbon and nitrogen values strongly suggests that there was no major dietary shift between the early and later periods (Bourbou et al. 2011, p. 577). A dependence on C3 staples, such as wheat and barley, is attested for all sites. It is likely, although evidence is limited so far, that C4 plants such as millet were also consumed, as attested in the two northern inland sites of Servia and Sourtara, either directlyor indirectly through consumption of meat and/or dairy products from millet-fed animals. Substantial consumption of meat and/or dairy products has also been argued using the relevant isotopic data, a considerable addition to the controversial issue of animal protein in the diet as presented in the sources.

Tabl. 1 – Mean stable isotopes values for collagen from adult humans from nine Greek Byzantine sites (mean ±1 standard deviation; n: number of samples). Adapted after Bourbou et al. 2011, table 1 and see pp. 571‑573 for the specifics of the sites, except for Alikianos (publication in preparation).

Site Date (AD) Location n Mean δ13C (‰) Mean δ15N (‰)
Alikianos 11th-12th c. Inland 22 -18.9±0.3 8.5±0.5
Eleutherna 6th-7th c. Inland 27 -18.9±0.6 8.2±1.4
Kastella 11th c. Coastal 19 -18.8±0.3 9.1±1.2
Messene 6th-7th c. Inland 21 -19.2±0.3 8.7±0.6
Nemea 12th-13th c. Coastal 11 -19.0±0.3 8.7±0.5
Petras 12th-13th c. Coastal 12 -19.2±0.3 9.5±0.7
Servia 11th-15th c. Inland 15 -18.7±0.3 8.7±0.6
Sourtara 6th-7th c. Inland 27 -18.2±0.3 9.5±0.3
Stylos 11th-12th c. Inland 10 -18.8±0.7 9.4±1.7

 

  • 3 For a thorough discussion see Bourbou 2010, pp. 129‑130, 156‑159; Bourbou et al. 2011, pp. 577‑578 (...)

8One of the most important discoveries in the isotopic studies was an indication of marine protein consumption. Fish and aquatic organisms are attested in the written sources and are known to have been consumed fresh, preserved (i.e. salted) and as by-products (i.e. garum). At the coastal sites, it is reasonable to conclude that the observed high carbon and nitrogen values reflect the consumption of marine resources. The values for inland sites are lower than those on the coast, but they are nevertheless still quite high, suggesting a more complex picture in which factors other than mere site location must have been at work. For example, two individuals the analysis of whose remains suggests heavy marine protein dependence were discovered on the inland sites of Eleutherna and Stylos (see fig. 2). The diets of these two individuals dependent on marine protein differ significantly from those of the majority in their groups. It appears possible that they were buried at the sites but spent much of their lives in communities with different diets, thus suggesting that in Byzantine Greece there existed communities that were heavily dependent on marine resources. However, the consumption of freshwater fish at inland sites near lakes and rivers is possible, for example, at the site of Stylos with its numerous springs of fresh water.3 These results are also very interesting when seen in the cultural context of attitudes towards food, as it appears possible that one factor in the increased consumption of marine resources in the Byzantine era may have been dietary restrictions imposed by the Orthodox Church (Bourbou et al. 2011, p. 578; Caseau 2015).

Fig. 2 – Stable isotope values for collagen from adult humans displayed individually (the ellipse marks the two “outliers” of Eleutherna and Stylos). Adapted after Bourbou et al. 2011, fig. 3.

Fig. 2 – Stable isotope values for collagen from adult humans displayed individually (the ellipse marks the two “outliers” of Eleutherna and Stylos). Adapted after Bourbou et al. 2011, fig. 3.

9The specific quality and adequacy of foodstuffs are of major importance, especially during the delicate stage of infancy in past as well as modern societies. The isotopic analysis of 88 non-adult individuals has significantly contributed to our knowledge concerning Greek Byzantine infant feeding practices. Current isotopic data suggest that weaning during the Byzantine period in Greece was broadly complete by the third to fourth year of age, with breast milk forming a substantial part of some infants’ diets well into the third year of life – a pattern consistent with the documentary sources (fig. 3).

Fig. 3 – Non-adult δ15N and δ13C values by age group, expressed in terms of per mil elevation (‰), relative to the means of their sites’ adult females (the ellipse marks the area of elevated values likely to be associated with nursing). Adapted after Bourbou et al. 2013, fig. 4.

Fig. 3 – Non-adult δ15N and δ13C values by age group, expressed in terms of per mil elevation (‰), relative to the means of their sites’ adult females (the ellipse marks the area of elevated values likely to be associated with nursing). Adapted after Bourbou et al. 2013, fig. 4.

10This research has also stimulated additional paths of investigation, firstly on the possible link between mortality patterns, specific pathological conditions and weaning. The notable cluster of deaths between two and five years of age in the majority of the analyzed skeletal samples, coupled with palaeopathological observations on the development of metabolic and hematopoietic conditions usually occurring within this age range (fig. 4), lead to the formulation of an interesting hypothesis: the presence of scurvy or vitamin C deficiency, as a response to supplementary foods after cessation of breastfeeding (Bourbou et al. 2013; Bourbou 2014; forthcoming b). Secondly, this research has shown the importance of comparing relevant isotopic data between Byzantine and western medieval populations from the Mediterranean area and western Europe that date from the Roman to the late medieval period. So far it appears that Greek Byzantine populations maintained traditions carried over from the Roman period, maintaining later weaning ages as did Roman and early medieval populations in the Mediterranean region and western Europe. However, this pattern contrasts with isotopic data obtained from the later medieval period in western Europe. For example, at Wharram Percy in Britain (10th-16th centuries AD), cessation of breastfeeding was more abrupt and occurred at an earlier age, at or shortly before two years of age, while at Saint-Laurent de Grenoble in France (13th-15th centuries AD), later weaning was still the preferred practice (Herrscher 2003). Comparative studies also included an attempt to determine whether a difference in weaning practices existed between the various populations of late medieval Greece, a period in which invasions and migrations brought communities of western European, i.e., Frankish origin, to Byzantine lands. Although so far few samples from these communities have been analyzed, the δ15N values are consistent with an earlier weaning age similar to that of Wharram Percy (Bourbou & Garvie-Lok 2009, pp. 80‑81).

Fig. 4 – Alikianos, skel. 004. Cranial fragments of a 2 to 4-year-old non-adult exhibiting porotic hyperstosis (a hemotopoietic condition) as a result of marrow hyperplasia. Its presence has a multifactorial etiology, in which a lack of key nutritional components in the diet, such as Vitamin B12 or folic acid, a parasitic load and environmental conditions are all contributing factors.

Fig. 4 – Alikianos, skel. 004. Cranial fragments of a 2 to 4-year-old non-adult exhibiting porotic hyperstosis (a hemotopoietic condition) as a result of marrow hyperplasia. Its presence has a multifactorial etiology, in which a lack of key nutritional components in the diet, such as Vitamin B12 or folic acid, a parasitic load and environmental conditions are all contributing factors.

Towards the future

11The question “what did the Byzantines eat” cannot be easily answered, and as already indicated above, it is necessary for the researcher to seek information by crossing boundaries between disciplines. In terms of bioarchaeological studies, it is important to highlight the need for a standardization of the criteria and the methodology applied in the study of human remains derived from archaeological populations. This is especially important for comparative studies, which can greatly contribute to a more complete overview of diet within different cultures, geographic areas and time periods. Additionally, large-scale investigations concerning the association of diet and the development of specific pathological conditions are considered to be of major importance and should be carried out more frequently (Bourbou 2013). Stable isotope analysis, which has indeed revolutionized our understanding of past diets, has much to offer to this particular subject, as has been demonstrated by recent studies focusing on the link between diet and disease (see, i.e. Katzenberg 2012; Olsen et al. 2014; D’Ortenzio et al. 2015).

12Stable isotope analysis is a powerful methodological tool that needs further application to Byzantine populations in order to better clarify specific dietary issues, such as the consumption of C4 plants or marine protein. The actual importance of C4 plants, especially millet, in the economy and diet of the period is still unknown, since consumption of C4 plants has only been sporadically identified in the Byzantine diet. From the Roman period onward, documentary evidence presents ambivalent information on the actual consumption of millet. Millet was largely considered to be primarily used as animal fodder or food for the poor and was usually associated with periods of famines and shortages (Teall 1959; Garnsey 1988). Although millet was considered a grain of lesser quality, it could have been consumed along with C3 plants and not necessarily only after a crop failure of the grains primarily in use. Similarly, and in light of the indications of marine protein consumption in the Greek Byzantine groups analyzed so far, this is a subject that needs to be further investigated. A new investigation explores the marine protein consumption within different cultural groups in Greece, dating from the Late Roman period to the Ottoman period (4th-19th century AD), providing some preliminary but interesting results (Garvie-Lok & Bourbou 2014). Also of great value would be measurement of isotopes of fish bones recovered from Greek Byzantine sites. Such measurement has been conducted on assemblages from Mesolithic to Classical contexts in Greece, providing new insights into the contrast between isotopic, archaeological and documentary evidence (Vika & Theodoropoulou 2012). It is also hoped that since an accelerated interest in Byzantine childhood is noted, biocultural studies on breastfeeding and weaning patterns will continue and further add to the body of the data obtained so far.

13As the human skeleton is a repository of information concerning the lifetime of an individual, the importance of studying bones and teeth in order to investigate dietary habits is now well understood. When these data are combined with those from other fields such as history, archaeology, biology and chemistry, our understanding of past diets is further enhanced.

Acknowledgments

14I deeply thank Dr Yona Waksman for her kind invitation to participate in the very interesting conference of the POMEDOR project, and my colleagues, Dr S. Garvie-Lock, Dr B. Fuller and Dr M.P. Richards for our fruitful years of research on Greek Byzantine diet.

Bibliographie

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Notes

1 It should be noted that a long time passed before studies of human remains, initially presented per se and ripped from their context, were replaced by contextualized studies of a population level. See, e.g., Larsen 2002; Buikstra & Beck 2006; Martin et al. 2013.

2 For thorough reviews on stable isotope analysis in archaeological populations, see Katzenberg 2012; Eriksson 2013; Reitsema 2013.

3 For a thorough discussion see Bourbou 2010, pp. 129‑130, 156‑159; Bourbou et al. 2011, pp. 577‑578; Bourbou & Garvie-Lok 2015, pp. 185‑187.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 – Map of Greek Byzantine sites subjected to up-to-date stable isotope analysis for the reconstruction of dietary patterns.
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/10244/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 505k
Titre Fig. 2 – Stable isotope values for collagen from adult humans displayed individually (the ellipse marks the two “outliers” of Eleutherna and Stylos). Adapted after Bourbou et al. 2011, fig. 3.
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/10244/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 182k
Titre Fig. 3 – Non-adult δ15N and δ13C values by age group, expressed in terms of per mil elevation (‰), relative to the means of their sites’ adult females (the ellipse marks the area of elevated values likely to be associated with nursing). Adapted after Bourbou et al. 2013, fig. 4.
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/10244/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 144k
Titre Fig. 4 – Alikianos, skel. 004. Cranial fragments of a 2 to 4-year-old non-adult exhibiting porotic hyperstosis (a hemotopoietic condition) as a result of marrow hyperplasia. Its presence has a multifactorial etiology, in which a lack of key nutritional components in the diet, such as Vitamin B12 or folic acid, a parasitic load and environmental conditions are all contributing factors.
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/10244/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,3M

Auteur

Ephorate of Antiquities of Chania, Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, Crete, Greece & Université de Fribourg, Faculté des lettres, Institut du monde antique et byzantin, Switzerland, chryssab@gmail.com

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