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Ceramics provide insights into medieval Islamic cuisine

Posted on 14 June 2021

A new study has found interesting differences between rural and urban cuisines in Islamic-ruled medieval Sicily

An example of an Olla

An international team of researchers, led by the University of York, has shed new light on the differences between rural and urban cuisines in Islamic-ruled medieval Sicily.

The team analysed traces of plants and animal products found in ceramic pottery found at three sites in Sicily’s urban capital of Palermo and from the rural town of Casale San Pietro.

Lead author of the study, Jasmine Lundy, who is studying for a PhD at York’s Department of Archaeology, said “This is the first time large-scale residue analysis of ceramics has been used to extensively explore what food consumption and production was like in a medieval multi-faith society.”

Pots and vessels

From the 9th to 12th century AD, Sicily was under Islamic rule, which profoundly impacted the region, with the capital city of Palermo thriving as an economic and cultural centre of the Mediterranean Islamic world. But little is known about how the lives of people in the region, particularly in rural areas, were impacted during this important period.

The team - consisting of researchers from Tor Vergata University of Rome and the University of Salento - analysed 134 cooking pots and vessels from the time period from Palermo and Casale San Pietro. 

The researchers found that grapes and dairy products were more likely to be consumed in rural areas of Sicily than in urban areas, presenting interesting questions about the role of rural sites in food consumption and production in Islamic Sicily.

Jasmine Lundy added “It is thought that the rural town was closely linked to the capital of Palermo. However,  we found notable differences in the products processed in ceramic vessels.”

“For instance, the fact that dairy products were only found in vessels from the rural site poses the possibility that they were being processed into cheese at the rural site and supplied to the capital”.

Colourful dishes

The results found traces of a wide mix of products including vegetables, fruits, beeswax and animal food products, complementing other archaeological evidence obtained as part of the ‘Sicily in Transition’ project. 

The diversity of food products is consistent with the colourful dishes described in Arabic literature, and the differences observed between rural and urban sites suggests there is more to be learned about how cultures differed across Sicilian society. 

Jasmine added “Analysis of residues found in ceramics can enrich our understanding of Islamic-ruled Sicily and its cuisine. Further studies, using similar techniques, will expand our understanding of what life was like there, especially the changes in cuisine preferences and the use of ceramics.”

The findings are published in PLOS ONE.

Further information:

The research was funded by an ERC Advanced Grant (The Archaeology of Regime Change: Sicily in Transition, ERC-ADG-2015 No 693600), between the University of York, Rome Tor Vergata and The University of Salento.

Find out more information about the Sicily in Transition project can be found here.