BBYAC July Session – The Archaeology of Ancient Diet

July saw the Brecon Beacons Young Archaeologists’ Club investigating ancient diet and how archaeologists find out about what people were eating in the past. This is involved some of the more gruesome and disgusting areas of archaeology – from examining ancient rubbish in middens and cess pits, to exploring coprolites (that is fossilised poo!).

We eased our way into the session by playing a game to match food types to the correct time period and culture – were they foods you would find in Iron Age Wales, in Ancient Rome, in the Aztec world of medieval Mexico or in Modern Wales? We found out that this wasn’t as simple as it sounded, that we didn’t have a good idea of where different foods originally came from and that some foods had been around for a very long time and could fit into more than one of the categories. We also realised how lucky we are today to have the vast array of foods from right around the world available to us – what would we do without bananas, potatoes or chocolate bars?

We learnt how looking at what people throw away can tell us about their diet by firstly investigating some modern rubbish. We learnt far more about a person than just their diet, but also about what their favourite foods were, where they liked to shop, what countries the food they ate came from, how healthy they were and how wealthy we thought they were. We also learnt about what kinds of things were missing and what we didn’t have evidence for. We then moved on to look at some archaeological rubbish – genuine 2000 year old Roman rubbish including shells, pottery fragments and animal bones, learning what they can tell us about the roman diet – from what they were eating, to how they were processing and preparing food, to how wealthy they were.

Our next and even more gruesome topic to investigate was the gruesome world of bog bodies, and how if you are really lucky you can tell what a person has been eating by careful examination of the contents of their stomachs! If you find it in someone’s stomach you know for sure that they definitely ate it.

We finished our session in the dirty world of coprolites. Examining fossilised remains of poo can help us understand ancient diet because of the remains of the food inside it, from the bones of fish and small mammals, to pips and stones from fruits to indigestible foods such as the husks of sweetcorn. Luckily there were a number of coprolites on hand that needed to be carefully excavated and recorded by our budding young archaeologists in order to work out if they were Roman or Aztec poos.

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Here we are excavating our coprolites…

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…and finding their sticky contents!

As well as finding the remains of their food we also found evidence that they weren’t very healthy because the poos were riddled with parasitic worms and there eggs – eeeeeuuuuugggggghhh!

(Don’t worry they weren’t real coprolites or worms! We used replicas that are more at home in a kitchen than a cess pit).

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