You are how you eat: learning about history from food utensils

Posted by ap507 at Sep 24, 2015 11:53 AM |
Archaeologists and Big Data experts at conference from 26-27 September

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 24 September 2015

What do dinner utensils say about Roman social interactions? Archaeologists and Big Data experts will be gathering at the University of Leicester to provide some answers to that question.

‘Big Data on the Roman Table’ is a research network jointly led by the University of Leicester and the University of Exeter. They will be holding the first of two workshops from 26-27 September at College Court Conference Centre, examining how big data gleaned mainly from Roman ceramics can give us insights into the lives of people less represented in the history books.

Eating and drinking are core activities around which interactions within and between households and communities are structured. As a vital sphere of socio-cultural practice, greater knowledge of everyday food consumption practices can better inform understandings of social connectedness and disconnectedness in the Roman world.

Current knowledge of everyday consumption practices for the majority living in the Roman Empire remains uneven. Little is known about how, where and with whom most people ate their meals, or what aspects of this social practice might have conveyed a universal sense of shared behaviour.

Artefacts associated with eating and drinking have been recorded by archaeologists over many decades and are the largest component of ‘big data’ from the Roman world. They include mass-produced terra sigillata fine wares and more numerous local imitations and off-shoots, as well as metal and glass wares and utensils.

These under-utilised data provide fine-grained information on Roman food-consumption practices essential for a bottom-up approach to varied experiences of phenomena such as imperialism and globalisation.

An artefactual approach allows analyses of representative cross-sections of societies throughout the empire, and more understanding of the lives of people less well recorded in the written sources (e.g. women, children, ordinary soldiers, non-élites, provincials), while also incorporating more visible groups such as urban elites. The network will run for 18 months, from June 2015 until December 2016. The main activities of the network are focused around two 2-day workshops. 

The ‘Big Data on the Roman Table’ network is co-directed by Professor Penelope Allison from the University of Leicester and Dr Martin Pitts from the University of Exeter.

Professor Allison, from Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History, said: “Artefacts used for eating and drinking in the Roman world are found from Scotland to the Middle East. At this first workshop some forty delegates from Britain, Europe and North America will be discussing, for the first time, how we can use these enormous datasets to better understand social behaviour across that world. This will not only give us great insights into social behaviour in the past but provide models for analysing and presenting such large quantities of data.”

  • The ‘Big Data on the Roman Table’ workshop takes place from 26-27 September at College Court Conference Centre, Leicester.


Notes to editors:

For more information please contact

Share this page: