Experimental Archaeology in Action: Recreating an Ancient Roman Recipe

By: and Olivia Wells

September 30, 2022

Food cultivation, creation, and diet are important research avenues for anthropologists as they are intertwined with the social, cultural, and economic processes of society. A primary source for learning about food history is burned, or “carbonized”, food remains often found during excavations. Archaeological scientists microscopically examine the physical characteristics of carbonized remains to determine the components of burned residues on artifacts like cooking pots and storage containers, and in open-firing contexts. These remains are then matched with organic materials located at the site and identified in comparison with contemporary samples.

Olivia measuring fresh broad bean pods and seeds in the CAAM lab. Photo Credit: Chantel White

To better understand Roman diets and culinary techniques, choices, and tastes, my Senior Research Paper in Classical Studies focused on the application of experimental archaeology and considered how a prepared multi-ingredient dish might appear in the archaeological record. I used the only Roman-period cookery book, Apicius’ De Re Coquinaria (“On the Subject of Cooking”), to create and analyze a recipe potentially made in ancient Rome.

Recipe 195 from “De Re Coquinaria.” Photo Credit: Olivia Wells

I chose Recipe 195 in De Re Coquinaria, “Peas in the Pod Apician Style.” The main ingredient in this recipe is broad beans, which are the most frequently found carbonized food in Herculaneum and Pompeii. After translating and cooking the recipe several times, Dr. Kate Moore, the Mainwaring Teaching Specialist for Zooarchaeology at the Penn Museum’s Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials (CAAM), and adjunct associate professor in the Department of Anthropology, carbonized the recipe in her home fire. In order to control variables, the prepared recipe was divided into different packets including the whole recipe, meat only, and beans only, before being carbonized.

Meat carbonized in foil packet. This portion of the meat visually presents very differently from carbonized broad bean seeds and pods. Photo Credit: Chantel White

After analyzing the carbonized recipe in the CAAM Archaeobotany lab with one of my advisors, Dr. Chantel White, we found that we were able to discern individual ingredients like the broad bean pods, seeds, meat, and spices. As archaeobotanists have traditionally looked for single ingredients, rather than multi-ingredient recipes in the archaeological record, this experiment demonstrates a new research avenue for foodways. Diagnostic features from this experiment show that by creating a reference collection demonstrating how whole recipes appear in the archaeological record after carbonization, archaeologists will be aided in identifying multi-ingredient dishes, like those that appear in De Re Coquinaria, to better understand Roman diets and cooking techniques.

Broad beans and pods carbonized in foil packet. Even if the genus and species of the bean pods are not identifiable, this image shows that bean pods can survive the carbonization process and can be identified. Photo Credit: Chantel White

Written by Olivia Wells, Penn Museum Fellow (2021-2022)

Oliva Wells is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences majoring in Classical Studies and minoring in History, Anthropology, and Archaeological Science. She was one of three Penn Museum Fellows selected for the 2021-2022 academic year. The Penn Museum Fellows program provides financial and research support to three Penn undergraduates as they complete a capstone project or thesis that articulates with the Penn Museum’s collections, archives, galleries, or broader mission.