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The Eastern Desert During The Roman Time

The historical journey of the Romans at the Eastern desert.


The Eastern Desert of Egypt, located between the Nile and the Red Sea, has a mean annual rainfall of just 5mm and is today classified as hyper-arid, and these arid conditions were already in place well before the start of the Roman period. Consequently, vegetation is sparse, except in some well-watered wâdis, and the region has seen neither agriculture nor permanent occupation during the last 10,000 years. The Eastern Desert is, however, rich in precious resources, ranging from gold and emeralds used in jewellery and other valuable objects, to high quality stone used for building, for statuary, for baths, basins and sarcophagi, employed largely in imperial prestige projects. Additionally, one of the main wâdis, the Wâdi al-Hammâmât, offers an accessible way through the mountains from the Nile to the Red Sea coast, and this route has been used at least since pharaonic times; in the Roman period it formed the main route to the port of Myos Hormos. The scarcity of water, the extreme heat and the lack of locally available foodstuffs make for a harsh environment and travel in or through the region was and is difficult and unforgiving. Nevertheless, the region was a hive of activity during the early Roman period, with the development of two major ports for the trade with India (already established during the Ptolemaic period), several quarries and mines, as well as roads and service stations to supply these. The inhabitants of these sites came from both Egypt and other parts of the Roman Empire, and included soldiers and their superiors, specialist and unskilled workmen, crafts people, passing merchants, wives, prostitutes, and possibly some slaves. So what was life like for the people working at the ports and quarries, and at the service stations? Were they living a life of bitter hardship, away from family and friends and without the trappings of standard aspects of Roman life? Were they far removed from Roman culture, living as they did in a remote region of the Empire? Or was their work so essential to the core of the Empire that they were well-integrated and provided for?

During the last 30 years many archaeological projects have addressed this and other questions, and many of the results are presented in this volume. This paper focuses on one key aspect: food. What did the people working at these various sites eat and how did they obtain their food? How varied was their diet, do we see differences between the various sites, and how did their diet compare with that of people living in the Nile Valley and other parts of the Egypt? Here the botanical remains of foodstuffs, recovered in abundance from the rubbish heaps associated with the archaeological sites, are synthesized and discussed. Such remains are available from 10 sites, all dating to the 1st – early/mid-3rd century AD, though some were occupied before or after this. The Romans were not the first to exploit the rich resources of the Eastern Desert. Apart from Pharaonic activity, the first systematic exploitation started in the Ptolemaic period. This intensified after the Roman occupation of Egypt, and during the late 1st century AD a well organised system was put in place, when the need for reliable water sources and security became more strongly felt. During this time the two major quarry complexes at Mons Claudianus and Mons Porphyrites were started, and work at the two ports (Berenike and Myos Hormos) was expanded. To supply and otherwise support these ports, quarries and mines a number of roads were constructed from the Nile valley, along with a series of fortified road-stations (thereafter way-stations), fortlets or praesidia. Soldiers were stationed at these way-stations to assist with security and to police the roads. The way-stations had wells and accommodation, providing water, food and fodder to weary travellers and their animals, at intervals of a day’s travel, ca. 20-25 km depending on the terrain.

Food and water were needed by those travelling the roads, but also by the people manning the way-stations and those working at the ports and quarries. As virtually no food was produced locally in the Eastern Desert, most of it would have to have been brought in from the Nile valley, or, in the case of fish, from the Red Sea. These supply routes were long; for example, in antiquity the journey from Qena (Kainepolis) to the quarry of Mons Claudianus would have taken five days when carrying supplies, that from Coptos to the port of Myos Hormos six or seven days when using donkeys as the main transport animal, and from Coptos to Berenike 12 days . Transport of the large, heavy columns and other stone blocks from the quarries may have taken more than a month. The quantities of food needed would have been very considerable, in view of both the large number of quarries, mines, way-stations and ports involved and considering the number of people working there at certain times of the year. While exact numbers are not known and would have fluctuated, one ostracon from the quarry of Mons Claudianus lists the presence of 917 people on a specific day. Another 500-900 men may have resided at the way-stations.

Additionally, huge amounts of fodder would have been needed too, as large numbers of working animals (donkeys and camels) transported the goods from the ports and the stone from the quarries to the Nile valley, as well as bringing food and water to all the sites. These animals would have needed to be fed, as the amount of grazing available in the desert was insufficient. Thus, the logistics of bringing huge amounts of food and fodder to all these sites required very considerable effort and organisation. The rich archives of ostraka recovered from the rubbish heaps at these desert sites, including accounts, private letters and instructions, offer a detailed picture of these logistics. We learn that regular food caravans travelled the roads and delivered supplies, while private letters highlight that many further foods were requested from and sent by family and friends, either via the caravan or via people travelling to and between the various stations. Meat and vegetables are frequently mentioned. Additionally, we have information on the wages of the workforce at the quarries; the skilled workforce  received a monthly wheat allocation (1 artaba = ca. 39 litres), a wine-ration and a salary of, usually, 47 drachmae. Once a month these workers wrote down instructions to the quartermaster (entolai) specifying which foods they wanted and how they wanted their wages spent. From these we learn that they often arranged for their wheat allocation to be given to their female relatives in the Nile valley, to be turned into bread before being brought to the desert, and that their salary was used to buy oil, lentils, onions and dates. We know that the other, unskilled, workers at the quarries (the familia) were also paid a salary (amount unknown) and received 1 artaba of wheat, lentils and oil each month, and, once a year, a set of clothes.

At the way-stations the grain for the soldiers was usually delivered in kind, to be ground, converted into bread and stored there. While these texts inform us about the supply mechanisms and list considerable numbers of foodstuffs and food products, much additional information can be obtained from the botanical, faunal and ceramic evidence. See Leguilloux for the supply of meat and fish, Bouchaud et al. for the supply of wood, Bender and Wild and Wild for textiles, and Tomber for the ceramic evidence. Here the evidence from the surviving plant foods is discussed. Thanks to the arid conditions in the Eastern Desert organic remains are generally well preserved at these Roman sites, and plant food remains such as grains, seeds, fruit stones, vegetative plant tissues including chaff, as well as animal bones, textiles, leather and some papyri, have been recovered during the archaeological excavations. Botanical food remains are available from 10 excavation projects. These include the two major ports (Berenike and Myos Hormos), four quarry sites (Mons Claudianus, Mons Porphyrites, Kainè Latomia (initially called Domitianè, but renamed Kainè Latomia once Domitian fell from grace; today known as Umm Balad) and Tiberianè (also known as Barud), as well as four way-stations (Badia, on the way from Mons Porphyrites to the Nile; Maximianon (also known as al-Zarqā’), on the way from Myos Hormos to the Nile, and Didymoi and Xeron Pelagos on the way from Berenike to the Nile). As the excavations were conducted by different archaeological teams and the sampling for botanical remains was executed at different scales, we use presence/absence of food plants and relative proportions of key components to compare the plant assemblages from each site. For exact details of the sampling strategies and size of the assemblages recovered and studied, the reader is referred to the publications of each site. We concentrate on the 1st to 3rd centuries AD, the period for which most evidence exists.

Data from Ptolemaic period sites are still very scarce, and while some data are available from late Roman/Late Antique phases of occupation, these are not yet sufficient for a full synthesis, and are thus only briefly summarised below. Almost all of the botanical remains were recovered from so-called sebakh, the large rubbish heaps of domestic waste found in and around these archaeological sites. They contain a rich archive of everything the Romans discarded, ranging from papyri and ostraka, pot sherds, fragments of glass vessels, vestiges of clothing and footwear, charcoal and ash from the fireplaces, to food and fodder remains such as animal and fish bones, seeds, fruit stones, nutshells, grain and chaff. It is worth stressing here that food is, of course, intended for human and animal consumption, so that in archaeology we tend to find primarily those parts of the plants that are not edible or were not digested, and were discarded in the process of food preparation and consumption. Thus we find the seeds and stones of fruits such as olives, grapes, dates, citron and sebesten, the shells of nuts such as walnut, hazelnut and pine nut, as well as the chaff and straw of the cereals. Over and above these ‘waste’ products –though the chaff and straw is not really ‘waste’, see section on animal fodder below– we occasionally find table left-overs, and, in small amounts, some food remains that have been accidentally lost, for example, grains of wheat, barley and rice, the seeds of herbs and spices, such as coriander, cumin, fennel and black pepper. The actual number of items is not necessarily indicative of the importance in the diet. Not only do fruits have varying numbers of ‘seeds’ –e.g. each olive contains one stone, each fig contains several thousand seeds– their nutritional values also vary, as do their chances of survival. Rather than concentrating on actual numbers, we rely here primarily on presence/absence, frequency, and relative proportions of major components. We hope that this largely counteracts the differences in numbers of samples and volumes of deposits analysed at each individual site. Where sampling differences are a concern.

Botanical remains, like other organic materials, would normally decay over time, but we do find them in archaeological contexts when certain preservation conditions are met; these concern charring, waterlogging, desiccation and mineral-replacement. The hyper-arid conditions in the Eastern Desert mean that desiccation is the main mode of preservation here. There is little to no bacterial decomposition and most plant remains are preserved in excellent condition, in desiccated form. Hence, the food remains discarded by the people living and working at the Eastern Desert sites are still preserved in the rubbish strewn in and around the settlements –possibly aided by the fact that there were few browsing omnivores (e.g. goats) to consume the food leftovers (as is often the case in agricultural settlements). These include vegetative remains, such as the bracts of artichoke, the skin of onions and the baseplates of garlic, that is, items rarely recovered in temperate climates, as well as shells of nuts, cereal chaff, fruit stones, seeds of herbs, grains and many more. Despite the arid conditions, some sites suffer from high levels of humidity, for example at sites in parts of the Wâdi al-Hammâmât, see Bi’r Umm Fawâkhir below. Charred remains are also present at each of the sites. These are food remains charred during daily domestic activities, such as food preparation and discard, but also during accidental fires, handicraft activities, etc., and some food remains were discarded into the fires of the smithies at the quarries. Additionally, animal dung was used as fuel, and as these animal droppings contained undigested food remains (grains and chaff, see below), these represent a significant component of the charred assemblage. At all ten sites both desiccated and charred remains have been found, but comparing the two we see that the number of food plants found in desiccated form is considerably higher than the number found charred. This highlights the value of sites in Egypt (and other arid zones), as we obtain a fuller picture of the foods consumed than is possible in areas where only charred remains are preserved, thus helping us to assess the direction of loss at those latter sites.

The Eastern Desert was important to the Roman Empire, as a source of prestigious building materials, precious stones and metals, as well as the eastern commodities brought to the Red Sea ports. These high-status, as well as a few quotidian, goods played a central role in the way the Empire functioned and this is reflected in the effort and care that went into supplying the people who worked to bring these goods to Rome. Thus, despite being located on the geographical fringe of the Empire, the Eastern Desert’s sites primary function, namely the provision of prestigious building materials and eastern goods, lay at the very heart of the Empire, feeding both imperial vanity and elite display. While the soldiers and workmen at these sites undoubtedly experienced life in the desert as difficult and harsh, neither the physical distance from the Nile valley, 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 were an integral part of their identities, and the changes observed in the archaeobotanical assemblages demonstrate changes in these identities over time, with a strongly Roman emphasis during the heyday of the Empire and of the exploitation of the Eastern Desert (later 1st to early 3rd centuries), more integration with local Egyptian peoples (both Nile valley and desert nomads) during the later Roman period, after the political and economic turmoil of the 3rd century, and a more starkly observed transformation by the medieval Islamic period, when Egypt had become part of the Islamic world. 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 and of later political entities. Our results emphasise the importance of food in the dynamics of geopolitics.


Marijke Van der Veen, Charlène Bouchaud, René Cappers and Claire Newton