Current research


Funded by the Leverhulme Trust (Major Research Fellowship 2008-2011) and a Research Fellowship from the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS, academic year 2011/12)

This project concentrates on a number of themes, including the process of agricultural innovation (why certain new crops/technologies become accepted in the new region and others not), the mechanisms of trade (the role of ports of trade), differential social access to foods (the interpretation of botanical remains recovered from archaeological excavations), and methodological aspects (accommodating very disparate datasets into quantitative analyses).

Coriander seedDuring the Roman and medieval periods some 50 new plant foods were introduced into north-west Europe. This project aims to improve our understanding of the significance of these introductions in terms of (a) changes in diet and food culture, (b) differential access to foods used to define and display social status and, (c) changes in food production/agriculture through the cultivation of new fruits, vegetables and herbs, i.e. the development of horticulture. The archaeological evidence for these changes will be analyzed and interpreted, using as primary data the botanical remains recovered from excavations. The project aims to make these crucial scientific data accessible to archaeologists, historians and anthropologists with interests in the development of trade, agriculture, diet, gastronomy and social change in Roman and Medieval Europe.

The output of this project will be a major synthetic overview, bringing together published archaeobotanical data from c. 2000 excavations. The data will be placed in their historical context, highlighting how these food introductions had a lasting impact on European consumption patterns, society and regional food production. By operating at the large temporal and spatial scale, the project has the power to chart changes not visible otherwise.

The first results are published in:

Frequency of coriander, grape and plumVan der Veen, M., Livarda, A. and Hill, A. 2007. The archaeobotany of Roman Britain – current state and identification of research priorities. Britannia 38: 181-210.

Livarda, A. 2008. New temptations? Olive, cherry and mulberry in Roman and medieval Europe. In Baker, S, Allen, M., Middle, S, and Poole, K. (eds) Food and Drink in Archaeology I. Totnes, Prospect Books, pp. 73-83.

Livarda, A. and Van der Veen, M. 2008. Social access and dispersal of condiments in North-West Europe from the Roman to the medieval period. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 17 (suppl. 1): 201-209. DOI 10.1007/s00334-008-0168-4

Van der Veen, M. 2008. Food as embodied material culture – diversity and change in plant food consumption in Roman Britain. Journal of Roman Archaeology 21: 83-110.

Van der Veen, M., Livarda, A. and Hill, A.2008. New food plants in Roman Britain – dispersal and social access. Environmental Archaeology 13 (1): 11-36. DOI 10.1179/174963108X279193

Van der Veen, M., Hill, A. and Livarda, A. 2013 (in press). The archaeobotany of medieval Britain (c AD 450–1500): identifying research priorities for the 21st century. Medieval Archaeology 57.



Funded by NERC (the Natural Environment Research Council)

Jacob MoralesSpices from the Far East represent a significant and lucrative commodity. The profits of the pepper trade, as well as cloves, cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg, made Venice a key player in world trade during the 16th and 17th centuries. The first introduction of pepper into the Mediterranean world was during the Roman period when ports at the Red Sea coast of Egypt (Berenike and Myos Hormos) were used to trans-ship goods obtained from India. One of these ports, Myos Hormos, now called Quseir al-Qadim, also flourished during the medieval Islamic (Ayubid/Mamluk) period (then known as Kusayr). Little is known about the early history of this spice trade, other than sparse records in classical and early Islamic sources. Between 1999-2003 a five year project of survey and excavations was conducted at Myos Hormos/Quseir al-Qadim under the direction of Prof. D. Peacock and Dr. L. Blue (Southampton University) with permission of the Supreme Council for Antiquities in Egypt and with support from the Peder Sager Wallenberg Charitable Trust.

The botanical component of the project has two aims: firstly the recovery and identification of plants which may represent the trade with India, Yemen, China and the Molluccas; secondly, an assessment of the diet, foodways and use of woody resources at the Roman and Islamic ports.

Black pepperQuseir al-Qadim acted as a transhipment port in the Indian Ocean spice trade during both the Roman and medieval Islamic periods. It is located on the Red Sea coast of Egypt and was active between ca. AD 1-250 (Myos Hormos) and again during ca. AD 1050-1500 (Kusayr). The spectacular preservation conditions at Quseir al-Qadim meant that food remains and wood were found in abundance, including fragments of onion skin, citrus rind, garlic cloves, aubergine seeds, banana skins, wooden bowls, spoons and combs, as well as many of the Eastern spices traded through the port, such as black pepper, ginger, cardamom and betelnut.

SievingThese remains are fully analysed and discussed under three overarching themes: trade, agricultural innovation and food consumption. The results provide significant new evidence for the Eastern trade and for the changes in agriculture that indirectly resulted from it. They also allow real insights into the lives of those working in the ports. They show the changes in the nature and scale of the Indian Ocean trade between the Roman and Islamic periods, as well as a major shift in the way the inhabitants of the ports saw themselves and located themselves in the wider world. The results identify how studies of food enable fuller dialogues regarding ‘globalization’ and also highlight clearly the importance of food in the dynamics of cultural identity and geopolitics.

Cox, A. and Van der Veen, M. 2008. Changing foodways: watermelon (Citrullus lanatus) consumption in Roman and Islamic Quseir al-Qadim, Egypt. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 17 (suppl. 1): 181-189. DOI 10.1007/s00334-008-0164-8

Van der Veen, M., Morales, J. and Cox, A. 2009. Food and culture: the plant foods from Roman and Islamic Quseir, Egypt. In: Fairbairn, A. S. and Weiss, E. (eds.) From Foragers to Farmers: Papers in Honour of Gordon C. Hillman. Oxford: Oxbow, pp. 263-270

Van der Veen, M. 2011. Consumption, Trade and Innovation: Exploring the Botanical Remains from the Roman and Islamic Ports at Quseir al-Qadim, Egypt.  Frankfurt: Africa Magna Verlag.



Analysis of plant remains from the Crusader era port town (12th-14th centuries), located on the north-eastern shore of the Mediterranean, in the Hatay province of Turkey, identified as the ancient Issos. Excavations have been carried out under the general direction of Prof. Marie-Henriette Gates of Bilkent University (Ankara), with the medieval levels the responsibility of Dr. Scott Redford of Koç University (Istanbul).  Analysis is in progress.



The analysis of charred plant remains often concerns a reconstruction of agricultural practices, especially a focus on cereal crops, pulses and oil/fibre crops. One theme concerns how changes in agriculture were initiated and carried through, what the drivers were for such change, and when we may be able to speak of innovation, rather than ‘just’ change. Two case studies are currently being investigated, one focusing on the introduction of so-called summer crops into the Middle East and one on changes in crop choice in Roman and medieval Britain.

Van der Veen, M. 2010. Agricultural innovation: invention and adoption or change and adaptation? World Archaeology 42(1): 1-12.

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