Historical Foodscapes: Reconstructing Social, Political and Historical Dynamics Through Diet and Food Consumption

Posted on February 19, 2020


This part of my series of posts on conference presentations, that I have filmed. This is another one from the TAG conference:

Session Info

Food is a crucial aspect of living, biologically it provides the energy and nutrients which enable the vital physical processes necessary for life, but there is much more to food than the needs of the body. Food is a complex social aspect of most people’s lives, it is feasted on during celebration, it is given for comfort, it provides a moment to talk or reflect with colleagues, friends, and family. More than this, the diet of a person can indicate many details about their life, for example their socioeconomic standing, their health, or their cultural background. The significance of food in human culture makes it a valuable source of information for researchers considering aspects of life in past societies and evidence for historical diet takes many forms. The physical remains of food can be found in anaerobic environments. Skeletal remains of slaughtered animals or pollen and phytolith remains of plants in the soil can also reveal the types of food procured by people in the past. Dietary health can be ascertained from the skeletal remains of individuals, using techniques such as isotope analysis and by recording indicators of pathology, and for the more recent past records of consumption can be found within the pages of historical documents. In sum, there is a broad range of evidence for food and diet in the past, with methods and projects constantly evolving. This session aims to cover a broad range of research across time and region, exploring the concept of food and diet as a means to shed light on past social and political dynamics, and as such we invite papers that explore food consumption and what it can reveal about society in the past. The session is the result of a White Rose Doctoral Network, exploring the relationship between food, faith and social status through a variety of methodologies and approaches; therefore, we particularly encourage proposals of an interdisciplinary nature.

Organisers: Alice Toso (University of York), Veronica Aniceti (University of Sheffield) and Holly Hunt-Watts (University of Leeds)

Historical Foodscapes: Combining zooarchaeology, stable isotope analysis, osteology, and nutritional science to explore economy, diet and nutrition from the Middle Ages to the present day. Challenges and reflections


This session is a result of a three year White Rose Network considering the relationship between food and a number of factors characterising ancient and modern populations such as economy, social status and faith. Three PhD projects revolved around this broad theme and engaged with a variety of disciplines such as zooarchaeology, isotope analysis, osteology and nutritional science to explore socio-economic dynamics and dietary intake from the Middle Ages until the present day. The challenge of this network was to combine, discuss and analyse the results of three highly multi-disciplinary projects that approached similar research questions in a number of different historical and material contexts. The results of this process are presented and discussed in this contribution.

Alice Toso (University of York), Veronica Aniceti (University of Sheffield) and Holly Hunt-Watts (University of Leeds)

‘Cooking the World’: Culinary choices in the Indus civilisation


The Indus Civilisation (c.3000-1500 B.C), is known as one of the great early complex civilisations of the Old World, and was located in present-day Pakistan and northwest India. Bioarchaeological evidence from Indus sites suggests that populations primarily exploited combinations of winter and summer crops, and domestic animals (cattle, sheep, goat, and pig). How this evidence relates to Indus culinary practices, however, has been under explored. For this talk I will present the preliminary results of on-going PhD research, which is using organic residue analysis to study absorbed lipids in pottery from Indus vessels from settlements in the urban (c. 2600- 1900 BC) and post-urban (c. 1900-1500 BC) periods to characterise Indus cuisine and vessel use. Preliminary results suggest that the culinary choices of Indus people were complex, possibly indicating the processing of specific food in vessels. So far organic residue analysis has seen very limited application in the Indian archaeological context, and there is little focus on assessing the relationship between ancient food and identity. However, anthropological literature on historical and contemporary Indian culinary traditions argue for an intimate connection with food and peoples’ social and religious lives. But how far can these ideas be extended into understanding ceramic residues from the Indus context? What interpretive traps can be created while studying Indus ‘foodscapes’?

Akshyeta Suryanarayan (University of Cambridge)

Food Production and Consumption in Late Roman and Early Anglo- Saxon Britain: The zooarchaeological evidence from Pakenham, Icklingham, and West Stow (Suffolk)


The management of animal resources for food production is highly affected by a range of economic and sociocultural variables. This contribution analyses food production and consumption at the two Roman sites of Pakenham and Icklingham, and at the early Anglo-Saxon site of West Stow. Differences in animal exploitation highlighted at the three sites are a direct reflection of the different economic needs and cultural preferences that characterise these two periods of British history. At the Roman sites, the need to produce a surplus to fuel the taxation cycle implied a major focus on cattle that was widely exploited in agricultural works and could provide large quantities of meat. The presence of specific beef products also highlights the spread of butchery practices and cultural preferences from the Continent. On the other hand, the more generalised pattern of animal exploitation at early Anglo-Saxon West Stow, as well as its focus on pig and sheep husbandry, reveal a completely different approach to animal management, mainly determined by the sudden demise of Roman influences, the smaller scale of the animal economy, more limited resource availability, and environmental variables.

Mauro Rizzetto (University of Sheffield)

Anglo-Saxon Foodways and Faith


This paper explores the connections between food, identity (individual and community), and religion during the 7th century in Anglo-Saxon England when the conversion of the Germanic peoples to Christianity was at its zenith. The link between changing burial practices in Anglo-Saxon England during the 7th century and Christianisation is well established, and this research seeks to compliment the changing material culture and practices in death with those during life-diet. What will be presented here is preliminary carbon and nitrogen data from a small subset of individuals in this study, showing what they ate and how this correlates with their burial rites. This study presents data about diet across the 7th century in Anglo-Saxon England, indicating any changes in food practice, which might align with change in religion. The hypothesis being tested is that diet changed in Anglo-Saxon England during the 7th century due to religious conversion, meaning that people adopted the new dietary laws of early Medieval Christianity as well as new burial practices, and reached a fish ‘event-horizon’. What will be shown here is whether or not the stable isotope data agrees with historical research or if it shows another story for 7th-century Anglo-Saxons.

Samantha Leggett (University of Cambridge)

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