A visit to the British Museum to learn about gardening and cooking artifacts from the first to fourth-century Roman-Britain
Aside from gardening and making, one of my favorite topics is ancient history. Not the glimmering gold of ancient Egypt, or the art of the classical world, but the lives of ordinary people, our ancestors. Being of European descent, I’m especially interested in what happened here all those thousands of years ago, and how the West came to be what it is.
Here on the Isle of Man, there are remnants of the Neolithic, artifacts from the Vikings, and medieval castles that still stand. I think that most people look at these impressive sites and items and forget that they, and our modern culture, is built on the foundation of farming. The radical idea that food didn’t have to be hunted or foraged, but grown for purpose.
Ancient Gardening and Cooking Artifacts
This week I visited the British Museum to see some of the ordinary objects used by people in the past. Tools used for farming, cooking, and ancient homemaking – the equivalent of what’s inside our garden sheds and kitchen cupboards. Some of the items are surprisingly similar to what we use today. Others hail to a time before we had supermarkets and machines to do the work for us.
The museum has a collection of ancient household items ranging from a 1.8 million-year-old stone chopping tool to medieval bowls and gardening implements. An intriguing part of the collection includes items from the 1st to 4th-century Roman-occupied Britain. That these metal and wood items have survived since then is a miracle.
Vegetable Crops in Roman-Britain
The Romans introduced a lot of new ideas, technology, products, and crops to the land they named Britannia. We owe them for our salads, herbs, and food crops since they were the ones who introduced them north and eventually into the modern diet. These crops read like your average shopping list: beets, parsnips, radishes, plums, garlic, lettuce, leeks, celery, chives, rosemary, cucumbers, and more. We even have a wild edible called Alexanders, that the Romans originally brought to Britain as a food crop.
I imagine many of these crops were painstakingly grown in Britain using some of the tools they left behind. In the museum’s collection, you’ll find at least two different spades, a sickle, pruning hooks, a hoe, a bill hook, remains of a wooden bucket, and rakes, among other items. What you’ll find fascinating about them is the way that metal was grafted onto wood. For example, one of the remains of a spade is just a crescent of iron. That’s because only the outer edge of the spade would have been metal; the rest fashioned out of wood.
Grinding grain into flour
Once harvested, grains were stored in specially built pits and wooden granaries. From there it would have been taken to be ground on stone slabs or querns into flour to make bread. Grinding stones were a lot more primitive and labor-intensive and involved rubbing grain manually with a rounded stone against a flat stone. Querns, used from the Neolithic, were two flat, round, stones that fit together on a spindle. You poured grain through the spindle hole on the top and rotated the stones until they ground it into flour.
Grinding grains and other foods made them more digestible, and Romans may have used another type of vessel called a mortarium to grind other foods and to prepare meals. They were round bowls with thick rims and spouts with the inner surface embedded with abrasive materials to help with the grinding. Researchers speculate that they could have been the Roman equivalent of a kitchen blender and mortar and pestle in one – but one that you could have cooked food in as well. Analysis of remains found inside them includes plant material, animal fats, and dairy.
Roman Cooking and eating vessels
In a time before refrigeration, food was dried, fermented, preserved in oil, or processed in some way to prolong its life. Cheese is an efficient way to preserve milk, and the British Museum has a beautiful terracotta cheese press. They also have ceramic pots and amphora that were used to store oil, wine, and other foods along with specially made vessels for eating and drinking. Knives, spoons, bowls, plates, and even glass flagons and containers. One charming item is an ancient baby’s bottle – a small pot with a ceramic ‘nipple’ on the side.
Roman cooking involved a completely different set of tools, and many that look relatively modern. You might be surprised to learn that Romans were all about frying and simmering, and seem to have invented the frying pan. There are a couple that you can see in the collection, made of iron and in familiar shapes. Roman Britons also used gridirons to cook with over hot coals. I remember using something similar while camping with my grandparents.
See the artifacts yourself
Looking at what we’ve found from that time makes me wonder about everything lost to it. The similarities between Roman items and modern equivalents is also an eye-opener. Despite all the advances in technology, we still use things that the Romans would have recognized and used. It creates a connection between our ancient forebears and us.
There’s far more to the story and if you’d like to discover more, visit room 49 of the British Museum. You can find opening times and visiting information over here.