A Roman stone sculpture recovered near Blackfriars. It depicts four women holding (from right to left) bread and fruit, a dog, a suckling baby, and a basket of fruit. (IMAGE: Museum of London)
A recent study, conducted by researchers from the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology at the Museum of London and Durham University, has looked into the diet of Roman London. Children were of particular interest to the team, as they may have had a different diet to that of adults due to their lower social status in Roman culture.
In total, the ribs of 107 individuals (77 children and 30 adults) from Londinium were analysed for carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes. Ribs are often chosen for these types of studies as they have a quick bone turnover rate, meaning that the stable isotopes they preserve are more likely to reflect individuals’ diets close to their time of death, compared to bones with much slower turnover rates, like femurs.
One of the main trends the team observed was a shift from a predominately freshwater diet during a person’s early childhood to an increasing dependence on marine, or saltwater, resources by their adolescence and early adulthood. As freshwater fish was more easily attainable given the proximity of the rivers Thames and Walbrook, this might reflect the lower social status of children, who may have been seen as not worthy of more expensive, non-local foodstuffs. Even the marine products may not have come far, though, with evidence mainly pointing to their origins lying in the Thames Estuary. Overall, dietary patterns seem to have followed a predictable life course, with weaning occurring before the age of 4, younger children being given a different, less-varied and more-locally based, diet, before achieving a fully ‘adult’ diet by the age of 17.
A tettina or Roman feeding bottle from Londinium. (IMAGE: Museum of London)
Comparing the results to other contemporaneous sites on the Continent, it appears that childhood diet and breastfeeding practices differed greatly across the Roman Empire, while adult diets were more alike. As the team emphasised in their recent paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, ‘Though speculative, this could be because childhood eating was less socially visible and therefore subject to fewer cultural proscriptions.’
In addition to the juvenile diet, the results showed that by and large all adults of Londinium, regardless of social class, ate a mixture of plants and terrestrial animals, as well as a smaller proportion of marine and freshwater foods. This is in stark contrast to historical records, which indicate that the poorer members of society ate a largely vegetarian diet. Isotopic studies from other Roman settlements in Britain, including Gloucester, Dorchester, Winchester, and York, however, support these recent findings.
This article appeared in CA 341.