This is a guest blog, written by visiting specialists Dr. Martin Pitts, Dr. Lucy Cramp, Dr. Rachel Vykukal and Anastasia Gabiger


The Roman melting pots project, led by archaeologists at the Universities of Exeter (Martin Pitts) and Bristol (Lucy Cramp), and a food chemist from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg (Simon Hammann), received funds from German and UK research funding councils (DFG-AHRC) to sample around 1000 pieces of pottery from archaeological excavations of Roman sites in Britain. This makes it the largest and most ambitious project to date applying organic residue analysis to Roman pottery. Decades of excavations have unearthed thousands of tons of Roman pottery, which is ripe for analysis of the fatty compounds absorbed into the vessel walls during cooking and eating. By exploring these molecular riches, the main goal of Roman melting pots is to examine the link between diet and the many cultures who lived and cooked in Roman Britain. Did the age-old phrase ‘you are what you eat’ also apply in Roman times?

Project team members from universities in Bristol and Exeter (UK) and Erlangen (Germany) on our second sampling trip to Vindolanda in November 2022.

Despite decades of attention to the classification of Roman pottery, how ancient people used different pottery vessels is still mostly assumed rather than proven.  We know a lot about where people came from, especially at Vindolanda where a lot of written evidence survives. Yet we have no information about whether pots associated with these people on the move were used to prepare ‘food from home’, or indeed were adapted for local cuisine and populations.

At Vindolanda, preliminary work by members of the project team revealed that pots from military contexts in the fort showed higher levels of coniferous resins than those from the extramural civilian settlement, which likely indicates the storage of military-supplied foodstuffs in resinous containers.

The team first sorts through the pottery to find diagnostic sherds belonging to certain vessel types. We are particularly interested in wares that could have been used for cooking and/or serving, such as jars, bowls, and dishes.

The Roman melting pots project will push this research further by examining an additional 300 pottery sherds from Vindolanda. This will allow us to, for example, contrast the residues from pots found in the barracks associated with Vardulli cavalrymen, hailing from N. Spain, with material taken from the extramural roundhouse and adjacent rectilinear building, likely associated with civilian members of the wider Vindolanda community, both dating to the early second century CE. Were these two groups of people from different places cooking and eating the same foods or were they each hanging on to the culinary practices of their homeland? Organic residues can shed light on important questions such as these.

When the team first looked at this pottery they noted big differences in the types of vessels apparently being used by the different communities at Vindolanda. The extramural assemblage is dominated by utilitarian cooking jars typical of Roman period sites in Britain, whereas the cavalry barrack assemblage has a lot more specialist vessels, such as bowls, dishes and mortaria (grinding bowls). Roman pottery experts tend to assume the more specialist shapes of pottery as seen in the Vardulli cavalry barracks were involved in more elaborate ways of eating, which might reflect styles of cooking or consumption imported to Britain from other parts of the Roman world. However, the link between the design and shape of pots and their culinary use has rarely been verified by scientific analyses – until now. The Roman melting pots project will seek to change this situation, by conducting high-resolution lipid analysis of the surviving food residues on the pots in question.

This beaker was found with burnt residues still attached in the Severan ditch (200-212 CE). The brown crust (seen here on the interior) and a sample of the wall will be analyzed for ancient food remnants.