Research interests

I am an archaeologist specialising in archaeobotany, the archaeology of human-plant interactions. I have recently described the role of plants in our lives as follows:

"Plants are essential to human and animal life on earth: they create the oxygen we breathe and the food we consume. Additionally, plants provide the fibres for our clothes, the building materials for our shelter, the fuel that keeps us warm, the ingredients for our medicines, and the flowers that give us beauty. Importantly, plants are also the ‘materials’ with which we create and maintain group identity, social relations and a sense of community (food sharing) or social distinction (luxury foods), and individual identity (clothes, colour (plant dyes) and smells (perfumes, plant resins). Plants thus engage with our everyday lives in a variety of different ways, affecting our nutrition and health, our social practices, our emotions and our work.

The cultivation, distribution, selection, preparation and consumption of foodstuffs and the use of plants in many other day-to-day activities, are practices deeply embedded in our cultural norms. Importantly, this routine engagement with plants, enacting the same set of actions over and over again, day after day, year after year, makes us who we are. Archaeobotany, the study of the plant remains recovered from archaeological excavations, can thus provide insights into our different modes of being, as well as trace past social and cultural behaviour and continuity and change therein" (Van der Veen 2018: 53 and Van der Veen 2014).

Van der Veen, M. 2014. The materiality of plants: plant-people entanglements. World Archaeology 46(5): 799-812. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00438243.2014.953710

Van der Veen, M. 2018. Archaeobotany: the archaeology of human-plant interactions. In Scheidel, W. (ed) The Science of Roman History. Biology, Climate, and the Future of the Past. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, pp. 53-95. https://press.princeton.edu/titles/11324.html

My research focuses one the reconstruction of ancient agriculture and the archaeology of food. Research themes and projects include:

Research Themes

 

1. Seeds of Change

Funded by the Leverhulme Trust (Major Research Fellowship 2008-2011), a Research Fellowship from the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS, academic year 2011/12), major grants from NERC (2004, 2008), research leave funded by AHRC (2006), and a grant from the British Academy (2004).

The introduction of new plant foods into a region tends to have a significant impact on diet (increase in variety and nutrients), consumption patterns (differential social access to certain foods) and agricultural regimes (agricultural innovation). These changes interact with social, economic and cultural aspects of peoples’ lives. I have studied these processes within two major projects:    A) The Roman and Islamic Spice Trade, and B) The Introduction of New Foods into Roman Britain and Europe. 

1A. The Roman and Islamic Spice Trade

My work on the spice trade focused on the site of Quseir al-Qadim on the Red Sea coast in Egypt, one of the two main portals for the trade with India and the Far East in antiquity. Excavations at this site, known as Myos Hormos in Roman times and as Kusayr in the medieval Islamic period, were directed by David Peacock and Lucy Blue from the University of Southampton.

The spectacular preservation conditions (extreme aridity) meant that spices and many other foods were preserved in abundance, including black pepper, ginger, cardamom, turmeric, betel nut, banana, sugar cane, citrus fruits and aubergine, as well as rice and cotton. The results provide significant new evidence for the Eastern trade and 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 evidence for changes in the nature and the scale of the Indian Ocean trade between the Roman and medieval 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. These changes are part of the geopolitical re-alignment of the Red Sea and its ports at that time.

Importantly, we should regard these changes in diet, agriculture and trade not as passive outcomes or consequences of these geopolitical transformations, nor foodways as a mere reflection of certain identities, but, instead, as integral parts of making those transformations and identities real. What it is to be part of the Roman or Islamic world is connected to food related practices, to the daily routines of procuring, growing and consuming food. These identities are created and maintained in part through food. In other words, geopolitics does not only concern high level political transformations, it changes the way people live their day-to-day lives; it is through these daily routines that these transformations become real (Van der Veen and Morales 2017: 285).

2017    Van der Veen, M. and Morales, J. 2017. Food globalisation and the Red Sea: new evidence from the ancient ports at Quseir al-Qadim, Egypt. In Agius, D.A., Khalil, E., Scerri, E.M.L. and Williams, A. (eds) Human Interaction with the Environment in the Red Sea. Selected Papers of Red Sea Project VI. Leiden: Brill, pp. 254-289. https://brill.com/abstract/book/edcoll/9789004330825/B9789004330825_013.xml

2015    Van der Veen, M. and Morales, J. 2015. The Roman and Islamic spice trade: new archaeological evidence. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 167: 54-63. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2014.09.036. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2014.09.036

2011    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 (Journal of African Archaeology Monograph Series 6). ISBN 978-3-937248-23-3. Table of Contents

2010    Van der Veen, M. 2010. Agricultural innovation: invention and adoption or change and adaptation? World Archaeology 42(1): 1-12. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00438240903429649

2008    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. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00334-008-0164-8

1B. The Introduction of New Foods into Roman Britain and Europe

The impact of the Roman presence on both British society and agriculture has been the subject of considerable debate. The changes observed have often been studied in terms of ‘Romanization’, a concept emphasizing conformity, and describing the hierarchical process of passing down supposedly superior Roman culture and technology to the people of a new province, using the simple opposition of Romans versus Britons. Yet, it is increasingly evident that the processes that took place resulted in more complex and varied identities than the term ‘Romanization’ conveys.

The import and trade in ‘exotic’ foods, in this case black pepper, grapes, olives, figs, was accompanied by many crops that were subsequently incorporated into British farming practice (e.g. domestic apple, plum, cherry, walnut, cabbage and leaf beet). This led to a rise in horticulture in Britain and northwest Europe more widely, and thus to a significant broadening of the agricultural base, though this development was geographically restricted to areas that saw periods of stability and prosperity under Roman rule.

The new foods offered a significant broadening of the range of vitamins, minerals and fatty acids available through plant foods, while the new herbs and spices also offered new ways of preparing and flavouring basic staples. We also see the development of different consumer groups, strong regional variation and changes over the span of the Roman occupation. Through their connection with the individual, the social group and the productive economy a study of foodstuffs can enhance the archaeological and historical narrative of the Roman and medieval worlds.

2014    Van der Veen, M. 2014. Arable farming, horticulture, and food: expansion, innovation, and diversity in Roman Britain. In M. Millett, L. Revell and A. Moore (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Roman Britain. Oxford, OUP. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199697713.013.046

2013    Van der Veen, M., Hill, A. and Livarda, A. 2013. The archaeobotany of Medieval Britain (c AD 450–1500): identifying research priorities for the 21st century. Medieval Archaeology 57, 151-182. https://doi.org/10.1179/0076609713Z.00000000018n/a

2008    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. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1047759400004396

2008    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. https://doi.org/10.1179/174963108X279193

2008    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. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00334-008-0168-4

2007    Van 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. https://doi.org/10.3815/000000007784016557

 

   2. Food as Material Culture

Food plays an incredibly important role in our lives. We must eat and drink in order to stay alive and we use food to create or enhance group identity, social relations, and a sense of community through either sharing food or using luxuries to highlight social distinction. The cultivation, distribution, selection, preparation and consumption of foodstuffs and the use of plants in many other day-to-day activities, are practices deeply embedded in our cultural norms. Importantly, this routine engagement with plants, enacting the same set of actions over and over again, day after day, year after year, makes us who we are (Van der Veen 2018: 53; Van der Veen 2014).

Aspects I have studied include:

  • A) The role of luxury foods in past societies;
  • B) The supply of food to early industrial sites (Roman quarries);
  • C) Factors influencing agricultural change (innovation; development of horticulture);
  • D) Foodways (what foods are consumed and how these are prepared and eaten);
  • E) The impact of long-distance trade (see under ‘Seeds of Change’)

2014    Van der Veen, M. 2014. The materiality of plants: plant-people entanglements. World Archaeology 46(5): 799-812. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00438243.2014.953710

2010    Van der Veen, M. 2010. Agricultural Innovation: invention and adoption or change and adaptation? World Archaeology 42(1): 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1080/00438240903429649

2008    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. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1047759400004396

2008    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. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00334-008-0164-8

2005    Van der Veen, M. 2005. Gardens and fields: the intensity and scale of food production. In M. van der Veen (ed.) Garden Agriculture. World Archaeology 37(2): 157-163. https://doi.org/10.1080/004382405000130731

2003    Van der Veen, M. 2003. When is food a luxury? In M. van der Veen (ed.) Luxury Foods. World Archaeology 34(3): 405-427. https://doi.org/10.1080/0043824021000026422

2002    Palmer, C. and Van der Veen, M. 2002. Archaeobotany and the social context of food. Acta Palaeobotanica 42(2): 195-202. http://bomax.botany.pl/cgi-bin/pubs/data/article_pdf?id=530

 

A major focus within this general theme has been a study of the food supply to two Roman stone quarries in the Eastern Desert of Egypt: Mons Claudianus and Mons Porphyrites

2B. Supplying the Roman Quarries Mons Claudianus and Mons Porphyrites, Egypt

This research was carried out with research grants from the Universities of Exeter and Leicester, The British Academy, NERC and a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship.

These quarry sites were primarily concerned with the extraction of granite and porphyry for imperial building projects and statuary in Rome. The extreme aridity in the Eastern Desert has ensured the excellent preservation of the food remains thrown away by the inhabitants of these sites (seeds, grains, pulses, fruits, nuts, vegetables, etc.) which has enabled a detailed reconstruction of the food supply.

The food remains and other evidence highlight that the delivery of food was well organised and consistent. Thus, despite being located on the geographical fringe of the Empire, the Eastern desert sites’ primary function, namely the provision of prestigious building materials, lay at the heart of the Empire, feeding imperial vanity. While the soldiers undoubtedly experienced life in the desert as difficult and harsh, neither the physical distance from the Nile, nor the environmental constraints of the desert environment prevented them from maintaining contact with their families and friends or from eating the types of foods that they had become accustomed to in other parts of Egypt or the Mediterranean. Their foodways are an integral part of their identities. This highlights that the Eastern Desert was not remote in any real sense; instead, it was closely linked to and affected by the social, economic and political fortunes of the Empire (Van der Veen et al. 2018. https://books.openedition.org/cdf/5252 )

At Mons Claudianus survey and excavations were carried out between 1987 and 1993 under the aegis of the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale du Caire with permission of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization, and directed by Professor J. Bingen (Brussels) with H. Cuvigny (Paris) as chef de chantier. At Mons Porphyrites survey and excavations took place between 1994 and 1998, under the aegis of the Egyptian Exploration Society with permission of the Supreme Council for Antiquities, and directed by Prof. D. Peacock (Southampton) and Prof. V. Maxfield (Exeter).

2018.    Van der Veen, M., Bouchaud, C., Cappers, R. and Newton, C. in press. Roman life in the Eastern Desert of Egypt: food, imperial power and geopolitics. In Brun, J.-P. (ed.) Le désert oriental d’Égypte durant la période gréco-romaine : bilans archéologiques. Collection électronique de l’Institut des civilisations du Collège de France, série « Mondes méditerranéens antiques » (https://books.openedition.org/cdf/5252)

2018    Bouchaud, C., Newton, C., Van der Veen, M. and Vermeeren, C. in press. Fuelwood and wood supplies in the Eastern Desert of Egypt during Roman times. In Brun, J.-P., (ed) Le désert oriental d’Égypte durant la période gréco-romaine : bilans archéologiques. Collection électronique de l’Institut des civilisations du Collège de France, série « Mondes méditerranéens antiques » (https://books.openedition.org/cdf/5237)

2007    Van der Veen, M. and Tabinor, H. 2007. Food, fodder and fuel at Mons Porphyrites: the botanical evidence. In V. A. Maxfield and D. P. S. Peacock (eds.) Survey and Excavation at Mons Porphyrites 1994-1998. Volume 2: The Excavations. London, Egypt Exploration Society, pp. 83-142. ISBN 978-0-85698-180-7.

2001    Van der Veen, M. 2001. The Botanical Evidence. (Chapter 8) In V. A. Maxfield and D. P. S. Peacock (eds.) Survey and Excavations at Mons Claudianus 1987-1993. Volume 2: The Excavations: Part 1. Cairo, Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale du Caire: Documents de Fouilles 43, 174-247. ISBN 2724702913.

1998    Van der Veen, M. and Hamilton-Dyer, S. 1998. A life of luxury in the desert? The food and fodder supply to Mons Claudianus. Journal of Roman Archaeology 11: 101-116. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1047759400017219

1998 V   an der Veen, M. 1998. Gardens in the Desert. In O.E. Kaper (ed.) Life on the Fringe: Living in the Southern Egyptian Deserts during the Roman and early-Byzantine Periods. Leiden, CNWS, pp. 221-242. https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/handle/1887/20155

 

3. Archaeobotanical Methodologies (sampling, quantification, formation processes)

It is my firm belief that we need rigorous scientific approaches in order to advance our discipline. I have tried to make several contributions to the debate on methodological and theoretical aspects of archaeobotany. Key aspects concern:

  • Sampling strategies in the field and in the laboratory – to make sure our data are representative of the human/plant interactions at each site/region of study;
  • Quantification of our results – ensuring enough data are available to enable us to use statistical methods of analysis (without collecting/analysing more than necessary);
  • Formation processes – understanding how our data came into existence to ensure that we are comparing like with like in regional studies, distinguish between day-to-day routine practices and unusual, one-off events;
  • Weed ecology – using multivariate analyses to detect different cultivation regimes.

1982    Van der Veen, M. and Fieller, N. 1982. Sampling Seeds. Journal of Archaeological Science 9, 287-298. https://doi.org/10.1016/0305-4403(82)90024-3

1984    Van der Veen, M. 1984. Sampling for seeds. In W. van Zeist and W. A. Casparie (eds) Plants and Ancient Man. Studies in Palaeoethnobotany. Rotterdam, A. A. Balkema Publishers, 193-199.

1989    Van der Veen, M. 1989. Charred grain assemblages from Roman-period corn driers in Britain. The Archaeological Journal, 146, 302-319. https://doi.org/10.1080/00665983.1989.11021292

1992    Van der Veen, M.1992. Crop Husbandry Regimes. An archaeobotanical study of farming in northern England: 1000 BC - AD 500. Sheffield, Sheffield Archaeological Monographs 3. ISBN 0906090415

1995    Van der Veen, M. 1995.The identification of maslin crops. In H. Kroll and R. Pasternak (eds.) Res Archaeobotanicae, Kiel, pp. 335-343.

1997    Van der Veen, M. and Palmer, C. 1997.Environmental factors and the yield potential of ancient wheat crops. Journal of Archaeological Science 24(2):163-182. https://doi.org/10.1006/jasc.1996.0101

1999    Van der Veen, M. 1999.The economic value of chaff and straw in arid and temperate zones. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 8, 211-224. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02342721

2006    Van der Veen, M. and Jones, G. 2006. A re-analysis of agricultural production and consumption: implications for understanding of the British Iron Age. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 15(3): 217-228. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00334-006-0040-3

2007    Van der Veen, M. 2007. Formation processes of desiccated and carbonised plant remains - the identification of routine practice. Journal of Archaeological Science 34: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2006.09.007

 

4. Ancient Agricultural Strategies

General papers within this theme are:

2010   Van der Veen, M. 2010. Agricultural Innovation: invention and adoption or change and adaptation? World Archaeology 42(1): 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1080/00438240903429649

2005   Van der Veen, M. 2005. Gardens and fields: the intensity and scale of food production. In M. van der Veen (ed.) Garden Agriculture. World Archaeology 37(2): 157-163. https://doi.org/10.1080/004382405000130731

1999   Van der Veen, M. 1999.The economic value of chaff and straw in arid and temperate zones. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 8, 211-224. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02342721

1997     Van der Veen, M. and Palmer, C. 1997. Environmental factors and the yield potential of ancient wheat crops. Journal of Archaeological Science 24(2): 163-182. https://doi.org/10.1006/jasc.1996.0101

4A. Iron Age and Roman Agriculture in Northern England

My early research was focused on agriculture and how we could use archaeobotanical data to identify different agricultural regimes and strategies. As part of my PhD research I analysed the assemblages from six Iron Age settlements in north-east England (Van der Veen 1992). The results indicate that in this region two distinct cultivation practices were in operation side by side, one representing small-scale arable production, the other indicative of arable expansion. The results also suggest that the replacement of emmer wheat by spelt wheat during the Iron Age in Britain may have been caused by a change in cultivation regime, rather than being related to climatic change or other environmental factors (see also Van der Veen 1995).

More recently, I collaborated with Glynis Jones in studying the patterning in carbonized seed assemblages from Iron Age sites in Britain. We concluded that a predominance of grain-rich samples is likely to be an indicator of the scale of production and consumption, rather than a means of distinguishing between the two, as had previously been suggested. A review of the evidence from Iron Age Britain indicates that grain-rich site assemblages primarily occur in the south of the country, and frequently co-occur with pits, used for the storage of surplus grain. Moreover, such pits are concentrated in hillforts. It is proposed that the grain stored in such pits may have been used in large communal feasts and that the hillforts functioned as locations for feasting (Van der Veen and Jones 2006, 2007).

1992    Van der Veen, M. 1992. Crop Husbandry Regimes. An archaeobotanical study of farming in northern England: 1000 BC - AD 500. Sheffield, Sheffield Archaeological Monographs 3. ISBN 0906090415

1995     Van der Veen, M. 1995. The identification of maslin crops. In H. Kroll and R. Pasternak (eds.) Res Archaeobotanicae, Kiel, pp. 335-343.

1998    Van der Veen, M. and O’Connor, T. 1998. The expansion of agricultural production in later Iron Age and Roman Britain. In J. Bayley (ed.) Science in Archaeology: an Agenda for the Future. London, English Heritage, pp.127-143. ISBN 1850746931

2005    Van der Veen, M. 2005. Gardens and fields: the intensity and scale of food production. In M. van der Veen (ed.) Garden Agriculture. World Archaeology 37(2): 157-163. https://doi.org/10.1080/004382405000130731

2006    Van der Veen, M. and Jones, G. 2006.A re-analysis of agricultural production and consumption: implications for understanding of the British Iron Age. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 15(3): 217-228. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00334-006-0040-3

2007    Van der Veen, M. and Jones, G. 2007. The production and consumption of cereals: a question of scale. In C. Haselgrove and T. Moore (eds.) The Later Iron Age of Britain and Beyond. Oxford, Oxbow, pp. 419-429. ISBN 9781842172520

4B. Ancient Agriculture in the Arid Zone of North Africa

I also worked on sites in the semi-arid regions of Libya, and work on the plant remains from Zinchecra, Fezzan, southern Libya has identified the earliest recorded evidence for agriculture in the Sahara (Van der Veen 1992; 2010). The range of crops found suggest a form of early oasis agriculture was practiced. Radiocarbon dates give a date of 900-400 cal BC for the occupation of the settlement, which is associated with the Garamantes, one of the Saharan tribes mentioned by Herodotus.

Work on the reconstruction of agriculture in the Libyan Valleys, the semi-desert area of Tripolitania, north-west Libya, has identified a flourishing arable system, with cereals, pulses, fruits and oil plants being cultivated over a long time-span (c. 1st - 7th centuries AD). Reviews discussing the evidence for the last 10,000 years have been published in Van der Veen 1995 and Van der Veen 1999.

1985    Van der Veen, M. 1985. The UNESCO Libyan Valleys Survey X: Botanical evidence for ancient farming in the pre-desert. Libyan Studies 16, 15-28. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0263718900007263

1992    Van der Veen, M. 1992. Garamantian agriculture: the plant remains from Zinchecra, Fezzan. Libyan Studies 23, pp. 7-39. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0263718900001722

1995    Van der Veen, M. 1995. Ancient agriculture in Libya: a review of the evidence. Acta Palaeobotanica 35 (1), pp. 85-98. https://botany.pl/ibwyd/acta_paleo/act-p35.htm

1996    Van der Veen, M., Grant, A. and Barker, G. 1996. Romano-Libyan agriculture: crops and animals. Chapter 8 in G. Barker, D. Gilbertson, B. Jones and D. Mattingly (eds.) Farming the Desert: The UNESCO Libyan Valleys Archaeological Survey. Vol. 1: Synthesis. Paris, UNESCO, pp. 227-263 (bibliography 365-391). ISBN 9231032143/0950836389

1999    Van der Veen, M. (ed.) 1999. The Exploitation of Plant Resources in Ancient Africa. New York, Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers. https://www.springer.com/gb/book/9780306461095

2010     Van der Veen, M. 2010. Plant remains from Zinkekra - early evidence for oasis agriculture. In D. J. Mattingly (ed.) The Archaeology of Fazzan. Vol. 3: Excavations of C. M. Daniels. London: Society for Libyan Studies, Department of Antiquities, pp. 489-519.

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