What’s cooking in archaeological chemistry?

This item first appeared in 2007

Bristol & South West meeting looks at food, drink and cosmetics of the ancients

Richard Evershed, professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Bristol, UK, provided a fascinating insight into archaeological chemistry to a joint meeting of the Bristol & South West Regional Group, the Royal Society of Chemistry Bristol & District Section and the British Association for the Advancement of Science Bristol & Bath Section on Thursday, 22 February 2007.

Evershed’s extensive research portfolio includes the recognition of organic material trapped in the pores of ancient pottery, examination of the Egyptian mummification processes used for both humans and animals, and the analysis of a Roman ointment.

He set the scene by describing the latest state of the art equipment used in his department and his analytical approach, based on matching the properties of individual compounds present in archaeological materials to those of modern plants and animals likely to have been exploited in antiquity. As a result, he is able to identify that the ancients ate cabbage by comparing compounds in archaeological samples with present day brassicas. Marker chemicals enabled him to distinguish between fat from ruminants, for example cows, and fat from non-ruminants, including pigs. He gave an absorbing review of how the finest analytical techniques were being used to answer archaeological questions on which crops were grown and eaten and how they were cooked.

Evershed concluded with details of his work on the ‘Roman Ointment’ discovered in 2003 by London archaeologists close to a temple complex in Southwark. The cosmetic was buried almost 2000 years ago and was contained in an exquisitely made round tin box two inches in diameter hidden within a timber-lined Roman ditch. It was initially assumed that the ointment was pure fat but when it was dissolved in an organic solvent half remained, which X-ray analysis showed to be mainly tin oxide. Other tests revealed that the fat came from a ruminant, probably a cow. Starch was also present, which could have come from boiling roots and grain.

Reports by writers of the time confirm that cosmetics and make-up were an important part of a wealthy Roman woman’s life (pictured), so Evershed and his colleagues made their own version of what he called ‘Londinium Cream’, a cosmetic rather than an ointment. ‘It feels like slightly stiff Polyfilla. If you start rubbing it in, it feels greasy initially. Then as the fat gets into your skin, it gets powdery,’ Evershed said. ‘Fashionable Roman women also aspired to a fair complexion and the Londinium Cream may have served as a foundation layer.’

Raymond Holland
Hon Secretary, SCI Bristol & South West Regional Group

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