BMCR 2006.10.41

Roman Foodprints at Berenike: Archaeobotanical Evidence of Subsistence and Trade in the Eastern Desert of Egypt

, Roman foodprints at Berenike : archaeobotanical evidence of subsistence and trade in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. Monograph ; 55. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, University of California, 2006. xvi, 229 pages : illustrations (some color), maps (some color) ; 28 cm.. ISBN 1931745269 $35.00.

The fascinating topic of the Roman Empire’s trade with the east, especially Arabia and India, has experienced a welcome revival of interest in recent times, starting with Casson’s publication of the famous Periplus Maris Erythraei in 1989 and culminating, on the ancient historical front at least, in Gary K. Young’s recent monograph on Rome’s Eastern Trade: International Commerce and Imperial Policy, 31 BC-AD 305.1 Now, it seems the next major contribution has come from classical archaeology. René Cappers’ book is a report on the study of the archaeobotanical remains found during the excavation of the Roman harbour town of Berenike on the coast of the Red Sea in the Eastern Desert of Egypt.

The book is the sixth in a series of reports documenting the results of excavations at Berenike and some sites in its vicinity jointly organised by the universities of Delaware (USA) and Leiden (The Netherlands) between 1994 and 2001. Cappers provides a detailed overview and analysis of the plant remains discovered at Berenike and the nearby Roman settlement at Shenshef. At the same time, he uses the archaeobotanical evidence as the basis for a reconstruction of both the local agricultural subsistence economy and the network of trade flows at whose crossroads Berenike was located.

It is this latter feature especially which, from the point of view of an ancient historian such as this reviewer, gives Cappers’ study an edge over many other archaeological publications. This is so not least because Cappers liberally makes use of both the contemporary written sources and modern-day ethnographic evidence on life and food production in the Eastern Desert gathered from a study of the local Ababda nomads (to whom the book is also dedicated) to contextualize his data. The result is a rich picture, constructed literally from the ground up, of food cultivation and trade in a harbour town on the fringes of the Roman world, a town, to be sure, that for centuries served as an entrepôt for some of that world’s major luxury commodities (exemplified, for instance, by the enormous quantities of black pepper found on the site), but also a community which was continuously involved in a precarious struggle for existence in a very hostile desert environment.

The book consists of an introduction and seven chapters. The introduction briefly sketches the context and scope of the archaeobotanical research at Berenike and Shenshef, and then quickly moves on to discuss two important written documents that provide some of our chief evidence on the trade between the Roman world and India. The first is the Periplus Maris Erythraei (ca. AD 40-70), a handbook-like description, probably by an Egyptian Greek, of the trade routes from Myos Hormos (Quseir al-Qadim) and Berenike to India. The text includes detailed information on harbours along the African, Arabian and Indian coasts, as well as descriptions of the goods traded, including 34 botanical commodities, of which 18 were traded from Berenike.

The second document is the so-called Alexandrian Tariff, issued by the emperor Marcus Aurelius between AD 176-180, listing 54 commodities (of which 20 are plant products) subject to import duties at Alexandria on their way to Rome. The botanical commodities mentioned in both sources are usefully presented graphically, enabling quick comparison with the archaeobotanical record. Plant products mentioned in either or both documents and present in the archaeobotanical record from Berenike and Shenshef include amomum, cardamom, dates, grapes, black pepper, long pepper, rice and wheat (see Chapter 6, p. 166).

Chapter 1 offers a concise description of the main long-distance trade routes connecting the Roman world with Arabia, Sub-Saharan Africa, India, and the Far East, and of Roman installations in the Egyptian Eastern Desert. Chapters 2 and 3 in turn focus, respectively, on the present-day natural vegetation found in the Eastern Desert and on life and survival in the desert as currently lived and practised by the local Ababda nomads. Thus these two chapters provide much of the comparative setting against which the archaeobotanical data described in the next chapter can be interpreted in an attempt to reconstruct the cultivation of and trade in plant products in and around Roman Berenike.

Despite being hyperarid, the Eastern Desert boasts quite a rich and diverse flora. This is due to the availability in many places of other water sources besides rainfall, particularly morning dew and ground and (occasionally) surface water, and to plant adaptations to water stress. As the study of food production among the Ababda nomads shows, it is quite possible to cultivate a range of vegetables and herbs in small ‘kitchen gardens’ (ranging in size from 4 to 20 square metres) near settlements, provided the soil is relatively well-watered and mineral rich. Trees can also be cultivated, among them the fig, the Nile acacia, date palm, guava and mango.

The Eastern Desert is however not suitable to cereal cultivation on a medium or large scale. Some (very) small plots are occasionally found but ‘present cultivation of cereals in the Eastern Desert is mostly practiced on a small scale and has an opportunistic character’ (i.e. cultivators capitalise on rare excess rainfall. Quote is from p. 47). As climatic and soil conditions in Roman times are unlikely to have differed much from those prevalent in the Eastern Desert today (see Chapter 6, p. 155), this implies that for most of their grain (barley and hard wheat) the inhabitants of urban sites such as Berenike would have been dependent on imports from the Nile Valley (see chapter 6 p. 162). Chapter 4 comprises the central and longest part of the book. It is a catalogue consisting of detailed descriptions and analysis of the archaeobotanical remains from Berenike and Shenshef. It is here that we find some important discoveries, but also a host of perhaps less important, but nonetheless fascinating little gems of information. I present just a random selection. Remains of the apricot have been found nowhere else in the Empire but in Egypt, with, among some other finds, two fragments at Berenike. Its presence ‘in such a remote corner of the Empire clearly reflects the luxury status of the food supply’ (p. 61). The archaeobotanical remains of six-row hulled barley, one of Berenike’s main staple foods, poignantly illustrate the vulnerability of Greco-Roman agriculture to pests and crop diseases of all kinds, as some of the barley remains clearly show traces of infection with a fungus called ‘covered smut’ (p. 90-1).

Besides its many other achievements, Roman civilization also appears to have been responsible for the expansion of the walnut throughout the Mediterranean region (p. 93). Gourds, seeds of which have been found at Berenike, were used by the Romans as containers in bathrooms and as jars to store wine in (Pliny, NH, 19.24.71), in Egypt to keep fishing nets afloat, and in Nigeria to ride on whilst fishing(!) (p. 95). Rice found at Berenike may have been imported from India partly to feed Indian merchants living in Berenike, just as wheat was exported to Muziris and Nelkynda in southwest India to feed western traders residing there; apart from Berenike, only three other archaeobotanical records of rice are known within the Empire, at Quseir al-Qadim, Zurzach in Switserland, and at the Roman fortress on the Rhine at Neuss in Germany (p. 105).

More important discoveries however also lurk in these pages, especially in the splendid mini-essay on black pepper. C. discovered more than 3,000 black peppercorns at Berenike, a spectacular quantity in comparison with other archaeobotanical records of the spice. In addition, a large dolium (storage jar) was discovered containing 7.5 kg of black peppercorns. With these discoveries, we have for the first time hard archaeological confirmation of the size and importance of the pepper trade between India and the Roman Empire as described in the written sources, which, as elsewhere in the book, C. fully cites and discusses. The finds fit well a model of trade and commerce within the Roman world and between the Empire and other parts of the world in which the prime commodities of long distance trade were luxury items, i.e. non-essential foodstuffs and goods for elite consumers.

Besides black pepper, the other ‘essential luxuries of Roman foreign trade’ (p. 113) were Chinese silk, African ivory, German amber and Arabian incense. Yet the Berenike black pepper finds give some food for thought. The model of luxury trade spread as a ‘thin veneer’2 over communities largely self-sufficient in the production of necessities, with staple foods only being transported over longer distances in some instances (i.e. in the case of very large urban populations unable to feed themselves from their own hinterland, as with the grain transports from Egypt to Rome, in case of unfavourable climatic conditions, as with the export of grain from the Nile Valley to Berenike, or in case of gluts in one region coinciding with dearth elsewhere) can leave one with a rather distorted view of the nature of Roman luxury commerce. For the metaphor of the ‘thin veneer’ should not be taken to imply small quantities.

The Roman local and imperial elites, the prime consumer groups for a commodity like black pepper, though relatively small in numbers (they constituted perhaps 5 percent of the Empire’s population), had a stupendously large spending power. According to one estimate, their aggregate annual income may have equalled almost half of the Empire’s GDP.3 Now, most peppercorns found at Berenike were either lost in transfer (and we can expect people to have handled such a valuable commodity carefully) or associated with religious ceremony, as votive offerings. If we add to this the fact the peppercorns found represent the yield from just the fraction of the entire site of Berenike that was actually excavated, the only conclusion can be that the scale of the transoceanic pepper trade into the Roman Empire must have been enormous (p. 114), in line with the level of demand suggested by the Roman elites’ huge spending power.

Chapter 5 opens with a consideration of the mechanics of long-distance trade, offering some useful estimates of sailing times (50 days from Berenike to Muziris in southwest India, 90 to 140 days to Rhapta in Africa south of the Sahara). Return voyages to both destinations took far longer, including stays of many months at the ports necessitated by the monsoon winds, which determined the times of arrival and departure. The rest of the chapter is devoted to a discussion of the possibilities for local cultivation in and around Roman Berenike, repeating some of the conclusions of Chapter 2, and to a careful consideration of the various methods of food preservation (drying, salting or sugaring, more-or-less airtight sealing, employing alcohol or spices, cooling or heating) that were in use during Roman times and which would have facilitated long-distance transport of botanical products. In this section again the literary sources are elegantly combined with archaeological and botanical information.

Chapter 6 offers an attempt to tie various threats together in an ‘interpretative summary.’ It opens with a somewhat belated section on methodology outlining the various interpretative obstacles and difficulties that plague archaeobotanical research (some plants leave no traces, or are processed or digested in such a way as to leave no traces, valuable commodities are handled with much care and leave little trace, unless traded in huge quantities, dump areas are ‘raided’ by organisms and not representative of what was once there, trash might be burned or blown away, plant remains might simply disintegrate, and so on). Particularly for the non-expert reader, it would have been highly useful to have this section at the beginning of the book, before the interpretation of the actual remains. The bulk of the chapter is devoted to an ordered summary and interpretation of the botanical remains presented in the catalogue that makes up Chapter 4. Conclusions can be summed up as follows. The natural vegetation in and around Roman Berenike is unlikely to have differed much from that found at the site today, given that climate in the Eastern Desert has not changed significantly since Roman times. Wood samples reveal that among trees, mangrove and acacia predominated. Cultivated plant species found at Berenike and Shenshef can be categorized as cereals, pulses, vegetables, edible fruits, condiments, oil-yielding plants and plants used for dying and tanning.

The majority of botanical commodities discovered at both sites were imported from the Nile Valley (among them cereals, pulses, fig, safflower, sesame), with local exploitation/Eastern Desert coming a good second (commodities including date and doam palm), the Mediterranean region (stone pine, almond, walnut, apricot, juniper) coming third, and Gebel Elba/East Africa and India (black pepper, mung bean, rice, coconut, emblic, Job’s tears) coming last with only relatively few, if highly important, commodities. On the basis of the analysis of the remains of black pepper, rice and coconut, it can be concluded that trade with India took place during the first and second and fourth to sixth centuries AD, with a gap during the third. During the first and second centuries, however, the trade encompassed a more diverse range of commodities than it did later on (bean and emblic are only found in first/second century contexts). The chapter ends with a short ‘Comparison with the written sources’, and a consideration of exotic plants from other Egyptian sites. Chapter 7 offers a presentation of some subfossil plant specimens from Berenike and Shenshef that are fairly rare in the Roman archaeobotanical records.

The book is beautifully produced, with an abundance of highly useful maps, tables and black and white photographs. The colour photograph section at the end offers a real sense of the landscape and natural world surrounding the sites. The book is exemplary in its presentation and analysis of difficult archaeological data in a way that is intelligent, engaging and understandable for both specialists and non-specialists alike, and it will no doubt serve as a highly valuable tool for both archaeologists and ancient historians researching Roman trade with the east and Roman settlement in the Egyptian Eastern Desert for many years to come.


1. L. Casson, The Periplus Maris Erythraei. Text with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989; G.K. Young, Rome’s Eastern Trade: International Commerce and Imperial Policy, 31 BC-AD 305. London/New York: Routledge, 2001 (reviewed in BMCR 2002.07.22). Strangely, Young’s book is missing from Cappers’ bibliography.

2. See K. Hopkins, ‘Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire (200 B.C.-A.D. 400), JRS 70 (1980) 101-25, at 104: ‘The monetary economy [including luxury trade – AZ] constituted a thin veneer of sophistication, spread over and tied to the subsistence economy…’

3. See W. Jongman, ‘A Golden Age. Death, Money Supply and Social Succession in the Roman Empire’ in: E. LoCascio (ed), Credito e moneta nel mondo romano. Bari: Edipuglia 2003, 181-96, at 192.