Luxury food and toy dogs in Iron Age Britain

Previously it had been assumed that prior to the Roman occupation of Britain, only liquid products such as olive oil and wine were imported from across the Channel. However archaeologists working at Silchester Roman Town in Hampshire have discovered that people of that time were importing Mediterranean seasoning as well as whole olives themselves.

Olive stone dated to pre 43AD. Image: University of Reading

A refined diet

In 2011 an olive stone, along with seeds of celery and coriander, were discovered in a Late Iron Age well, all dating to pre AD 43. A second well produced a celery seed again dated pre AD 43 and several dill seeds dated to AD 40-50.

Professor Michael Fulford, from the University of Reading’s Department of Archaeology, said: “These plant foods were all cultivated in the region and literary evidence shows they were part of Roman cuisine. Whilst the import of olive oil and wine during the Late Iron Age is evidenced at Silchester and elsewhere throughout southern Britain, we were unaware that olive fruits and seasonings were also being imported – until now.

“Topics such as global food trade, food security and self-sufficiency may seem like issues only for the present day, but this unique discovery shows just how sophisticated Britain’s trade in food and global links were, even before the Romans colonised in the first century AD.

“We take these culinary treats for granted but over 2000 years ago trade in these foodstuffs would have been essential, at least for the wealthy tribal aristocracy of Iron Age Britain. A journey to Britain from the Med would have taken several weeks, either by sea around the coasts of Spain, Portugal and France, or overland through France. This is the first olive from Iron Age Britain!”

A household pet

Other rare Iron Age finds from the 2011 dig include the skeleton of a ‘toy’ dog, similar to that of a modern-day poodle. The remains, with an estimated shoulder height of 29cm, were placed to replicate a normal, relaxed resting posture of the animal, possibly showing it was given a formal burial. This indicates there may have been a close connection between pet and owner and suggests the animal was kept not just for practical purposes.

Excavation of ‘toy dog’ skeleton. Image: University of Reading

“Very small dogs of this period are very rare finds,” said Professor Fulford. “Only half a dozen or so examples of this period have been recorded across Britain and it may have been bred on the continent and imported to Britain – another luxury like the olive. The dog was deliberately placed as a votive deposit in the foundations of a large Iron Age house which we are still excavating.”

“It was fully grown, two or three years old, and thankfully showed no signs of butchery, so it wasn’t a luxury food or killed for its fur,” Fulford said. “But it was found in the foundations of a very big house we are still uncovering – 50 metres long at least – so we believe it may turn out to be the biggest Iron Age building in Britain, which must have belonged to a chief or a sub chief, a very big cheese in the town. And whether this little dog conveniently died just at the right time to be popped into the foundations, or whether it was killed as a high status offering, we cannot tell.

A long running excavation

The finds were made during the 2011 excavation of Silchester Roman Town, which the University has been excavating and researching since 1974. The Silchester Field School takes place every summer for six weeks. In 2008 Professor Fulford and his team found the first evidence of an Iron Age town in Britain at Silchester.

Professor Fulford added in 2012: “The finds from last year were very exciting and we are hoping for more this summer to take forward our rapidly expanding knowledge of Iron Age and earliest Roman Silchester. The remains we are uncovering this summer span the period between Julius Caesar’s invasions of Britain in 55/54 BC and the immediate aftermath of the Roman conquest of the Emperor Claudius of AD 43/44. We have come a long way back in time – more than 400 years – since the Insula IX project began in 1997. One of the big questions we are addressing this summer is the character of the Roman military presence from AD 43/44.”

Fulford now believes that the town was at its height a century before the Roman invasion in 43AD, with regularly planned, paved streets, drainage, shops, houses and workshops, trading across the continent for luxury imports of food, household goods and jewellery, enjoying a lifestyle in Britain that, previously, was believed to have arrived with the Romans.

University of Reading
Gaurdian News and Media 2012