Introduction

Food is a central part of society, and can serve a multitude of purposes, from the obvious nutritional value to its use as a political tool. In this case food consumption in relation to burial practices shall be investigated; this includes the food prepared and left for consumption by the dead and deities, and funerary feasting. Such feasting often takes place at the burial site, thus leaving evidence in the archaeological record. The consumption of the dead can also be used to provide evidence on food consumption of the living; evidence from burial and settlement sites can be compared, as shall be done here, to determine if similar meals and foods were eaten, or if the food of the dead was unique to them, hence giving insight into culture, ritual and ideology. The burials discussed will include that of Tutankhamun and burials from the Gallo-Roman cemetery at Faulquemont.

The Tomb of Tutankhamun

This tomb was discovered and excavated by Howard Carter in 1922 in the Valley of the Kings. Tutankhamun is perhaps the best known of all the Egyptian pharaohs, despite his 18th dynasty reign being relatively short. Tutankhamun’s tomb has gained infamy since the auspicious day of its discovery for being the best preserved of the pharaonic tombs, despite its being broken into on two separate occasions. Due to its stupendously intact state, the first clear idea of what the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh contained was gained; this makes it an ideal case study for investigating food consumption in the 18th dynasty.

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Figure 1 (Hepper 2009, 3) The Valley of the Kings, 1963, showing the entrance to Tutankhamun’s tomb on the right

It took ten years to comprehensively catalogue all of the finds recovered; this prevalence of finds extended to food, with an astounding variety of food and drink being recovered. The wide variety of fruits, seeds, and nuts recovered from the tomb consist of many in use and available in Egypt during the 18th dynasty; these include watermelon, grewia, sycamore fig, doum palm, dates, almonds, grapes, and Christ-thorn. Notably absent plants include argun palm, common fig, cordia, and olive.

Vegetables, herbs, and spices were important resources in food consumption at this time, hence their widespread representation here is not surprising. Wild thyme, chick-pea, garlic and fenugreek seeds are among those varieties found in the tomb; dill, cumin, and varieties of mint were also popular at this time.

Given the importance of cereals as a staple food in ancient Egypt, evidence of them in the tomb is unsurprising. Several different types of seeds and cereals were recovered from inside a model granary recovered, which comprised part of the funerary equipment. The model is roughly square, measuring 74x65cm and 21.5cm in height; there is a functional doorway entrance and 16 internal compartments which were full of the seeds and cereals.

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Figure 2 (Hepper 2009, 53) Model granary containing cereals and seeds

It was filled mostly with emmer wheat, although fenugreek, chickpea, and various weed seeds were also found within the compartments. Such seeds are known from other Egyptian tombs, and allow for the reconstruction of flora active around the time of the burial.

Barley was a highly significant cereal for bread-making; texts refer always to ‘barley and wheat’, indicating its significance. It was also the main cereal for the brewing of beer, and its destruction during the biblical plagues of Egypt was a critical blow to the peoples of Egypt. Emmer wheat was the only type of wheat grown during the pharaonic periods; its significance is highlighted by the pharaoh’s flail and crook.

At least a dozen loaves of bread were recovered from the tomb; the majority were semi-circular in shape, with maximum measurements of 13x7cm and 2.5-5cm thick. Some were covered with a basket-like structure made of rushes, which may have served as a carrier. One loaf was unique in terms of shape, being triangular in form and measuring 20cm in length and 3.5cm in thickness. All except one of the loaves contained Christ-thorn fruits, and possibly coriander seeds.

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Figure 3 (Hepper 2009, 53) Loaves of bread, with some enclosed in network of rushes

Christ-thorn was recovered as whole fruits and seeds in various baskets and pots, and in the loaves. It was one of the most significant plants during this period, as it was a native and highly useful plant for consumption, medicine, timber, and had religious significance; thus foods were not merely to be consumed on a physical level, but also on a spiritual one.

A box measuring 202x88cm was found to contain a model Osiris bed; this was used in the ritual burial of germinated barley, “the corn of Egypt”, to symbolise new life after death; this is relevant here as it shows the significance of this staple cereal during this period in terms of food consumption. These beds continued to have importance after Tutankhamun, and have been recovered from numerous other tombs.

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Figure 4 (Hepper 2009, 54) Osiris bed with germinated barley grains

Exotic finds include coriander, grewia, juniper berries, and wild thyme; these goods were not common in Egypt at the time, unlike the rest of the food mentioned, and thus can be considered luxury goods. The coriander was largely well preserved apart from some holes made by weevils. It was only recorded from the 18th dynasty onwards in Egypt, and was likely still a rare find at this time, due to its origins in southern Europe. Grewia fruits and seeds were found in several baskets; it is grown far from the Valley of the Kings, in the hotter more southern parts of the Red Sea and Aswan coasts. These fruits were eaten in some areas of Africa, and some species are rich in citric acid, sugar, and vitamin C; such qualities would qualify it as a delicacy worthy of a pharaoh’s tomb. Juniper berries were found filling several baskets; two non-Egyptian varieties were represented, Juniperus oxycedrus and Juniperus excels. As these are not the typical Egyptian variety recovered from other tombs, they could represent exotic goods showing Tutankhamun’s status.

Wild thyme was found in a box containing items which had been disturbed by the robbers; this plant was not cultivated in Egypt at this time, and it has not been recorded in any other tomb. Thirty almond stones and some entire fruits were found in two red pottery jars; these are seldom found in Egypt, and both were likely a sign of status and wealth, showing the wider variety of food consumption options available to the elite.

 

The Gallo-Roman Cemetery of Faulquemont

This cemetery or necropolis is located in the Département of Moselle in northern France, and the focus of study here is 70 cremation graves which date from the 1st to the beginning of the 3rd century AD. This is a rural site related to a rural settlement with social hierarchy; mostly pit burials were identified, which contained carbonised plant remains. The remains of seeds and fruits were thus preserved, facilitating detailed analysis; 18 plant species including cereals, pulses, tubers, fruits, and bread were identified. Hulled wheat, hulled barley, lentil, and pea were the most significant of these, and more exotic finds including date, lupin, and olive were also recovered. Most plants mentioned were commonly eaten and likely locally grown; the case of grape is uncertain.

Date, lupin, and olive are not commonly found in Gallo-Roman graves; they are clearly imported fruits and luxury products. This is a clear indication of importance and wealth. The variation of goods (exotic goods likely from Roman territories) indicates Romanisation. The Roman cremation burials at Limagne are very similar in terms of plants (cereals, pulses); they are also associated with food consumption of the living (known from non-funerary sites).

The inclusion of the tuber here is interesting; commonly mentioned in funerary contexts from Iron Age Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands in a 2nd century AD Roman burial, it is clearly important across western Europe. It is unknown whether it was found locally, but whether it is an import or not, its inclusion in so many contexts highlights the significance of this nutritious plant.

Figures 5-6 (Preiss et al. 2005, 367) Carbonised cereals and tubers

Discussion

From these case studies it is clear that food consumption is not for the living alone; the dead and deities are also agents in food consumption, with a wide variety and substantial quantities of food provided for them. However, it cannot be presumed that the food represented in burials is the same as that consumed by the living. The investigation of Neolithic diets in southern Germany showed substantial differences between food consumption indicated by burials and from examination of settlement sites. The case studies here are quite similar in their offerings; both contain fruits, cereals and pulses for instance. In general the food consumption evidence found in Egyptian tombs was quite similar to Roman inferiae (offerings to dead), thus this is not surprising.

However, for both of these case studies, the situation is complex; many of the foods represented were consumed by the living; however, there were also luxury goods. Such goods have economic and ideological importance, and have been used to honour the ancestors. Caution must be used as burial goods are not a clear indication of status, and such evidence must be interpreted cautiously. In this case it is likely status symbolism, as Tutankhamun was pharaoh, and social stratification was evident at Faulquemont also.

Although Roman literary evidence can be poor, it is clear that food products were important for Roman and Gallo-Roman burial practices. Survival of the body was not part of Roman beliefs, in contrast to Egyptian; hence the food represented offerings to show that rituals were correctly undertaken and the living, dead and gods received their part and the dead were honoured. For Tutankhamun it was more materialistic; this food was for both him to consume and as offerings to the gods. This is similar to Swedish burials which contain both people and horses, as oats placed in the graves are believed to serve as fodder for the horses.

Funeral feasting was important to both societies; this can have ideological, economic, political, and status purposes. They are emotional events, and attract more people from widely dispersed social groups than almost any other event. They were also used to honour the dead. Funeral feasting is known from ancient Egyptian texts but no evidence of it is apparent here. In contrast, there is some evidence of feasting from the written sources as previously discussed, but in Faulquemont it is clear in the record. Cereals and pulses were exposed to the funerary fire longer; fruits and breads partly consumed at the funerary feast had less exposure. Thus it is known that cereals and pulses formed the primary offerings and were placed on the pyre, while the fruits and breads were partially consumed by the living before becoming secondary offerings.

 

Conclusions

It is undoubted from these case studies that plants played important roles in food consumption of both the living and the dead. Overall the foods consumed were quite similar, with cereals, pulses, fruits and breads clearly represented in both, although the burials may have higher instances of exotic goods. However, this type of study is only really developing; issues of lack of publication and targeted study hinder it greatly; few Gallo-Roman graves, particularly in northern France, have been investigated, for instance. Experience in identification and knowledge of what to look for are also key to the success of such studies. Increased study and correction of these issues has begun, with analytic techniques such chemical and image analysis of soils and organic residues, and morphological and geochemical analyses being developed ever further.

Clearly there is much insight to be gained into food consumption from the study of burials. However, it is also undeniable that the choice of burial foods is not merely by chance; every inclusion is deliberate, and can be highly symbolic. Food and its related practices are not just reflections of the resources that happen to be available, or are simplest to obtain; it is a highly complex facet of society, unique to each one yet with undeniably shared characteristics. Food consumption can be on both a physical and ideological or spiritual level; even Christ-thorn, which was an important and widely used plant in the 18th dynasty, had religious significance. Thus it was not consumed merely for nutritional value, but also had an ideological function. Food is a valuable social tool, and can convey a plethora of complex meanings.

 

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