Between Fasting and Feasting: The Literary and Archaeobotanical Evidence for Monastic Diet in Late Antique Egypt

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To date, discussion of monastic diet and agricultural practice in 4th-7th-century AD Egypt has been largely based on surviving literary or papyrological evidence. Yet fundamental questions about how monastic communities developed or fed themselves are still not fully answered by such historical studies (Bagnall 1993: 290-303).

This paper departs from such historically based approaches to these questions by comparing and contrasting written and archaeobotanical evidence for monastic diet, agriculture and attitudes to fasting, as well as examining where these forms of evidence differ or dovetail. Archaeobotanical evidence is the main form of environmental archaeological evidence focused on here, simply because other forms of environmental evidence from Egyptian Late Antique monasteries have yet to be studied (e.g. human skeletal remains and/or food residues), or only limited or provisional results are currently available (e.g. the archaeozoological remains which correspond to the archaeobotanical evidence from Kom el-Nana have not yet been fully studied). As a result, what follows will focus solely on the archaeobotanical evidence currently available from Late Antique monasteries in Egypt. This is not intended to suggest that other forms of environmental evidence on monastic diet are superfluous, but instead is merely intended to illustrate the positive contribution environmental archaeology can make to our understanding of monastic diet.

Identifications presented from the site of Kom el-Nana were made in comparison with modern reference material from the School of Archaeological Studies, University of Leicester, from the Cairo University Herbarium, from personal reference material and in assistance with various specialists working in the region (see Smith 1997 for full acknowledgements). Identifications were made using standard low-power microscopy and magnifications between x10 and x50. The three sites discussed below are by no means the only monastic sites excavated, but to the authors' knowledge these are the only sites previously or currently excavated where archaeobotanical analysis has been carried out and we are unaware of any plans to carry out such analyses at planned excavations of monastic sites in the near future.

From a historian's point of view, the archaeobotanical evidence highlights the rhetorical strategies of the literary evidence and enables us to discern different levels of meaning present within the texts. From an archaeobotanist's point of view, the rich documentary record of Late Antique Egypt allows an archaeobotanist to place an assemblage of plant remains into its wider socio-historical context in a way which is not possible in other, less documented regions of the ancient world.

Monastic diet and attitudes to food will be examined here in terms of the archaeobotanical and written record; however, both forms of evidence have certain limitations.

Limitations of archaeobotanical evidence

Two types of archaeobotanical evidence from monasteries are available. The plant remains from Kom el-Nana (Smith 1997; forthcoming) are fully quantified and result from bulk environmental sampling during excavation; whereas the plant remains from the monasteries of Epiphanius (Winlock & Crum 1973: 61) and Phoebammon (Tackholm 1961) are not fully quantified and only include those plant remains which were haphazardly collected by the excavators. In addition, the plant remains from the monasteries of Epiphanius and Phoebammon are without context. Geographically, the plant remains discussed here are from Middle and Upper Egypt and may not be representative of agricultural conditions elsewhere in Egypt, and certainly are well removed from the Wadi Natrun region, the source of the majority of surviving Hagiographic texts (FIGURE 1). Although we can establish what food plants were available to the occupants of these monastic institutions, we are not able to determine what proportion of the occupants at these communities had access to these foods, how often these foods were consumed, or whether they were cultivated by the occupants of the monasteries or received as donations. …