Aristophanes and Stable Isotopes: A Taste for Freshwater Fish in Classical Thebes (Greece)?

Article excerpt


A great advantage for an archaeologist working with historic period material is the existence of literary sources, which can complement analyses from the field of archaeological science. This study presents a dietary profile for the inhabitants of Classical Thebes, Greece, using [[delta].sup.13]C and [[delta].sup.15]N isotope analysis and compares this evidence with information on diet as presented in Aristophanes' comedies (Acharnians, Plutus, Wasps). Specifically this study investigates the increase of the [[delta].sup.15]N observed in Classical diets in Thebes, in light of the abundant information on consumption of freshwater fish, as presented in Aristophanes' plays.

Thebes is located 80km north of Athens, in the fertile Boeotian Plain (Figure 1). Although inland, the city has access to the sea, both to the north-east and to the south-west, and to three large lakes. For the present study, samples for stable isotope analysis for dietary reconstruction were taken from individuals buried in the city's north-eastern cemetery, an extensive burial ground in use from the prehistoric to the Hellenistic times. We present here the results of 30 individuals from Classical period burials.

Thirty bone samples from human femora and 26 from animal bones were treated for collagen extraction and subsequent isotope measurements, following protocols based on Brown et al. (1998), modified by Richards and Hedges (1999).



The results indicate a diet of terrestrial and [C.sub.3] protein, with a remarkable absence of measurable contributions from marine protein, despite the proximity of the town to the sea (Table 1, Figure 2). This general pattern of diet is similar to other sites in Greece, where isotopic reconstructions have been undertaken, although of earlier time periods (e.g. Papathanasiou 2003; Richards & Vika 2008). The most striking innovation in Classical diet in Thebes is the enrichment in the [[delta].sup.15]N values of humans relative to the faunal data, approximately 5%0 higher. The human Classical values are also enriched relative to the human values of the prehistoric period (the prehistoric ([[delta].sup.13]C average is -19.4 [per thousand], [[delta].sup.15]N average is 8.5%e, Vika et al. in press). Compared to the prehistoric burials, the difference in the [[delta].sup.13]C values is statistically significant (Kolmogorov-Smirnov, D=0.4, P =0.1). The difference in the [[delta].sup.15]N values is highly significant (D = 0.7, P = 0.001). There is no difference in the faunal values between the two time periods.

What caused the increase?

Most studies agree that trophic level enrichment in mammals is generally 3-4 [per thousand] (e.g. DeNiro & Epstein 1981; Ambrose 2000; Bocherens & Drucker 2003). When extra-dietary parameters (as discussed more recently in Schwarcz et al. 1999; Sponheimer et al. 2003; Fuller et al. 2004, 2005 etc.), are not considered, then high nitrogen values in isotopic studies usually indicate increased consumption of protein (see for example Schoeninger & DeNiro 1984; O'Connell & Hedges 1999). Although it is not possible in the present study to independently quantify the protein consumed in Classical period Thebes, it may be that a more systematic exploitation of animal sources led to increased consumption of either meat or milk and milk products.


The technology of milk production is already known from prehistoric times (e.g. Evershed et al. 2008), and milk consumption is not a novelty for the time period.

Systematic consumption of pig meat, an animal traditionally omnivorous, would cause high nitrogen values in humans. However, pig bones from Thebes show values consistent with an herbivorous diet. This means that consumption of pigs would have had the same effect in the human values as the consumption of ovicaprids. Ferrets and other carnivorous animals, like dogs, could also have been introduced into the diets (Snyder & Klippel 2003; Roy 2007), but a high frequency of exploitation would be needed to explain the human values. …