What did the Romans eat at the Chester Amphitheatre?

Typical seived samples
Typical sieved samples showing changing nature of Roman deposits in the 3rd Century. Scale 1cm.

Dr Jen Harland, lecturer in Archaeology at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, has contributed a chapter on her zooarchaeology research to a major new book on the Roman Amphitheatre located in Chester, England.

The chapter is entitled Fish Bone from Roman Phases and appears in the recently published book: The Roman Amphitheatre of Chester Volume I, edited by Tony Wilmott and Dan Garner.

Jen’s research investigates the largest single fish bone assemblage in Roman Britain, uncovered during excavations at the amphitheatre in 2004-2006. The Roman structure originally dates from 70AD, but between 85AD and 100AD was re-modelled and timber seating was installed. The lower parts of the timber framework was held in place by dumped material from the arena and elsewhere. This material contained over 20,000 fish remains dating from the Roman to post-medieval period and there were over 4,500 fish remains dating to the Roman period – providing a very useful addition to the zooarchaeology of Roman Britain.

Spanish Mackerel
Spanish mackerel vertebrae. Scale 1cm.

Fish was a prominent part of Roman diet and marked out those elements of the population who wanted to be ‘Roman’. Most of the British Iron Age population did not consume fish as a regular part of their diet. On examining the fish remains, Jen’s research found that flatfish were the most common with over 70% from this order, eel was the second most commonly consumed fish at the site with salmon and trout the third most popular.

Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that Spanish mackerel was also found in the deposits. These fish are not found in the waters around the British Isles and thus they were somewhat of a surprise during analysis.The Spanish mackerel was, perhaps as the name implies, an import from the coastal regions of Portugal, Spain and the north coast of Africa and they provided a taste of the Mediterranean to Chester’s small Roman population.

Jen’s research also sheds light on the way that the Roman population in and around the amphitheatre consumed their fish. There were no butchery marks on the bones found suggesting that the fish was eaten on the bone and perhaps formed a meal for one or two people. This probably means that the meal would have to be eaten delicately and with care rather than in a fast food/on the move manner.

Location of Chester England
The Roman city of Deva, now Chester

The research also provides clues to the ‘fishing industry’ operating in this part of the Roman Empire during this period. Evidence from the types of fish found in the assemblage suggests that fishing was organised on a local scale with the Roman fishermen not venturing far into Liverpool Bay. However, the ‘industry’ would also have to be organised on a relatively large scale to provide the volume of fish found.

There is also evidence to suggest that tastes, the environment or fishing methods changed over time. There is a trend to find smaller fish in the assemblage as time progresses into the 3rd century and herring also becomes more common – much more like the tastes and preferences of later centuries and much less ‘Roman’.

Harland Oxford poster

BookIf you wish to investigate this fascinating subject further then check out The Roman Amphitheatre of Chester Volume I. Tony Wilmott and Dan Garner. ISBN 978-1-78570-744-5 and can be purchased at https://www.oxbowbooks.com/oxbow/the-roman-amphitheatre-of-chester-volume-1.html