Food on the Move: Cooking and Community at Sea in Late Antiquity (20 min)


Andrew Donnelly, Texas A&M University-Commerce; and Justin Leidwanger, Stanford University


Hundreds of Mediterranean shipwrecks have been documented, allowing cargos to be harnessed as “big data” for economic history. By contrast, the mariners who labored at sea remain as marginalized in scholarly discussions as they were in their own times. Influential early shipwreck investigations have created certain paradigmatic and normative assumptions about how assemblages from a ship’s galley relate to food practices, crew numbers, and—not without contention—cultural origins.

This normativity has limited our ability to reveal everyday maritime lives. Here we reassess, holistically and without such assumptions, the varied food practices around which mobile social communities formed on Mediterranean waters in late antiquity. We offer a reexamination of the cooking and dining implements from three very different shipwrecks, alongside an analysis of textual sources, to explore the varied compositions, habits, and lives of those who crewed the Dramont F, Marzamemi 2, and Yassıada vessels. For example, the small local Dramont F vessel possessed service and storage vessels but no cooking pots, indicative of preprepared foods consumed while underway and occasional stops at known ports. By contrast, the range of cooking and dining wares at Marzamemi are reminiscent of mess kits used by those who moved from ship to ship. Our reexamination of the Yassıada pottery suggests meals prepared both onboard and onshore and consumed communally, perhaps unsurprising for a ship so closely associated with the church.

Our reading of food-related equipment and spaces offers a glimpse into the many and varied opportunities that diverse groups of sailors had to store, prepare, and consume while toiling on the later Roman Mediterranean. These often-overlooked parts of shipwreck assemblages reveal maritime labor and social dynamics at sea and recreate the experience of those who lived on the margins of society but whose work was central to the seaborne connections archaeologists study.