AMME Seminar: Food in Ancient Near East

The theme of April’s Ancient and Medieval Middle East Seminar was Food in the Ancient Near East. The speakers of the evening were Dr Cynthia Shafer-Elliott (William Jessup University) and PhD candidate Rosaura Cauchi (University of Vienna).

Dr Shafer-Elliott gave a speech titled “Home is where the Food is” focusing on the pre-exilic Iron Age Israel. The text of the Hebrew Bible describes monumental events, but these descriptions are based on the expectation that the audience is already familiar with things related to the daily life. Also, the monumental events took place in the everyday life of the ancient Israelites. This is why studying mundane things helps us to understand the monumental events. Food studies critically looks at the ways in which food shapes human experience and social practices related to food. This does not only concentrate on the food itself, but also on how it was prepared, who were included or excluded in the preparation and consumption of food. There are three aspects of food studies: material, behavioural and social aspect. The diet of Iron Age Israelites consisted mainly of the so-called Mediterranean triad: cereals, grapes, and olives. Different types of legumes, nuts and vegetables were also central in the diet. Meat was rarely used, and sheep and other animals were mainly kept because of their other products such as wool. As for cooking the food, there were four main types of cooking installations: saj, tannur, tabun and hearth. From archaeological evidence it seems that ovens were often located in central areas of the house and courtyard. The central location indicates that cooking facilitated social relationships. There is not much information on what different types of meals were common for the ancient Israelites. It is very likely that breakfast was something simple and quick and that lunch consisted of raw and uncooked ingredients such as fruits and nuts. Dinner was the main meal of the day and it was likely some sort of soup or stew. Some studies have suggested that in 80% of cultures meal preparations are done by women, and it is probable that this was also the case in ancient Israel. Dr Shafer-Elliot is currently editing T&T Clark Handbook of Food in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel and it will be published this fall.

PhD student Rosaura Cauchi is concentrating on bread and bread production in her research. Bread was one of the most important parts of the ancient Near Eastern diet. In many languages of the area the word for bread is used as s synonym for food in general. Bread makers are mentioned in temple archives but also in apprenticeship contracts. So far 35 apprenticeship contracts have been found of which 7 are related to training bakers. Many things can be learned from these contracts. For example, they reveal that multiple different types of breads were known in the ancient Mesopotamia. In addition to texts there is also iconographical evidence of bread from Neo-Assyrian and Hittite reliefs. The value of bread can be studied from rental contracts. Some houses and bakeries were rented so that the payment was loaves of bread. The approximate rental payment was 10-20 small loaves daily. All the evidence of bread production indicates that the production of bread was commercialized. However, it is very unlikely that bread was paid with silver, because the value of bread was quite low compared to the value of silver.