Human sacrifice was rarer than thought

News in Science - Human sacrifice was rarer than thought


Anna Salleh in Brisbane

ABC Science Online

Thursday, 22 July  2004


Did this skull from the Lichtenstein cave come from someone who was sacrificed or who died naturally? (Image: Stefan Flindt)

Bronze Age ritual human sacrifice may have been rarer than believed, according to a unique study of ancient DNA from bones in central Europe.


German anthropologist Dr Susanne Hummel from the University of Göttingen presented her team's research at a recent ancient DNA conference in Brisbane, Australia.


Hummel said the research was also the first to use ancient DNA to complete a family tree from human prehistoric remains.


The researchers have been looking at 3000-year old human bones from the remains of about 40 people found in the Lichtenstein cave, in Lower Saxony, north-western Germany.


The cave was discovered in the 1980s and is one of a few sites in central Europe where human Bronze Age bones have been found.


Bronze Age humans were most likely to cremate their dead, which left little in the way of bones.


But Hummel said the presence of bones in this and other caves led archaeologists to conclude that these were sites of ritual human sacrifice.


Cut marks on the skulls and upper and lower limb bones found at the sites supported their conclusion.


"In the beginning it was thought [the Lichtenstein cave] was another site of human sacrifice," Hummel told ABC Science Online. "They thought living people had been led into the cave and killed there somehow."


But Hummel and team analysed the bones and found no signs of violence. She also found the age of death, indicated by the bones, did not fit the expected pattern for human sacrifice.


"Usually just one gender and one age class, let's say all juvenile girls, are sacrificed, because they are the most valuable persons to the society," she said.


"[But] we found that we had all age classes. We had the baby, we had the young people, the young adults, older adults and people who were really old, like 70 years old."


To settle the question of whether this site was indeed a burial site rather than a site of ritual sacrifice, the researchers analysed DNA from the leg bones to see if the people they once belonged to were related.


"If they formed a family clan then it is absolutely unlikely this was a sacrificial site," Hummel said.


She and her team extracted DNA and analysed the genetic fingerprints, patterns on the Y-chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA to establish who was related.


To their excitement the researchers found a family tree complete with fathers, mothers, children and grandparents.


"It was fascinating to think that you have just these tiny bone pieces and you can tell who is mum, who's dad and who are the kids, 3000 years ago," said Hummel, adding this was the first prehistoric family tree to have been identified.


Inside the Lichtenstein cave, which has remained undisturbed for thousands of years (Image: Stefan Flindt)

Hummel and team have found four generations so far and expect to find a fifth by the time they complete their analysis.


"This tells us [the cave] is certainly not a place of sacrifice but that it's a burial site," she said.


Hummel added other sites thought to be sites of sacrifice may also be burial sites instead, especially as most of them contain bones without cut marks.


"Up to now, one never thought there was an alternative burial practice. One always thought it was exclusively cremation and everything else was some ritualised sacrificial thing," she said. "This idea might fall down."


If Hummel can reproduce her findings in one or two other caves then she says it would provide good evidence that burying bodies without cremation was simply an alternative, albeit less common, method of disposing of the dead. And that human sacrifice was not as frequent as previously thought in Bronze Age central Europe.


Hummel and team's molecular analysis was made possible because the DNA on the bones was so well preserved. One reason for this was the low temperatures inside the cave and the fact that the cave had been undisturbed since the time of the burials, she said.


The cave is 140 metres long but is very narrow with a very low ceiling often requiring people to move around in a crouched position.


"What is for sure is that during the last 3000 years nobody went into the cave," she said.


Hummel said support for this comes from the fact that all the bones and bronze and ceramic artefacts found with them had been covered by a brittle layer of gypsum sinter, a special type of calcium phosphate from saturated water that dripped from the cave.


Any intrusions into the cave would have been recorded in this layer, which appeared to be unbroken.


Hummel said that the analysis of ancient DNA has opened a new window on prehistoric societies, shedding light on everything from hair and skin colour to the cause of death, marriage patterns and related matters of kinship.


"We now have a very strong tool which can tell us how people were related to each other which is the most important thing which characterises a society," she said.


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First Wine? Archaeologist Traces Drink to Stone Age

William Cocke

for National Geographic News

July 21, 2004


Wine snobs might shudder at the thought, but the first wine-tasting may have occurred when Paleolithic humans slurped the juice of naturally fermented wild grapes from animal-skin pouches or crude wooden bowls.


The idea of winemaking may have occurred to our alert and resourceful ancestors when they observed birds gorging themselves silly on fermented fruit and decided to see what the buzz was all about.


"The whole process is sort of magical," said Patrick McGovern, an expert on the origins of ancient wine and a leader in the emerging field of biomolecular archaeology. "You could even call [fermentation] the first biotechnology," said McGovern, who is based at Philadelphia's University of Pennsylvania.


An expert on ancient wine, Patrick McGovern is searching for the origins of the first domesticated grapevine. Above, the University of Pennsylvania archaeologist searches a ravine near the headwaters of the Tigris River in Turkey's Taurus Mountains for grapevines untouched by human cultivation.


Combining archaeology with chemical and molecular analysis, McGovern has carved a niche for himself as an expert in ancient organics—particularly wine. He has already pushed our knowledge of vinicultural history back to Neolithic times (the late Stone Age). Now McGovern is searching in eastern Turkey for the origins of grape domestication.


The scientist lacks the physical evidence to prove his hypothesis that hunter-gatherers made what he calls "Stone Age beaujolais nouveau." But he has shown, through a combination of archaeological sleuthing and chemical analysis, that the history of wine extends to the Neolithic period (8,500-4,000 B.C.) and the first glimmerings of civilization.


The wild Eurasian grapevine (Vitis vinifera sylvestris) is found from Spain to Central Asia. Cultivars, or varieties bred from the vine, account for nearly all of the wine produced today.


McGovern is attempting to establish the origin of the earliest Neolithic viniculture—where grapevines were cultivated and winemaking developed. By comparing DNA from the wild grape with that of modern cultivars, McGovern and his colleagues hope to pinpoint the origin of domestication.


The scientist recently returned from an expedition to Turkey's Taurus Mountains near the headwaters of the Tigris River. There, he combed rugged river valleys in search of wild grapevines untouched by modern cultivation methods. McGovern was joined by José Vouillamoz, from Italy's Istituto Agrario di San Michele all'Adige in Trento, and Ali Ergül, from Turkey's Ankara University.


"We're looking in eastern Turkey, because that's where other plants were domesticated," McGovern said in a telephone interview before his trip. "We're going out there to collect wild grapevines with local cultivars, so we can see what the relationship is and maybe make a case that this is where the first domestication occurred."


One dramatic setting for the researchers' grapevine collecting was a deeply cut ravine below the site known as Nemrut Daghi. "A first-century B.C. ruler, Antiochus I Epiphanes, had statues of himself in the company of the gods hewn out of limestone on a mountaintop at about 7,000 feet [2,130 meters]," McGovern said.

The remote area includes the important Neolithic site of Çayönü. From this and other archaeological digs, McGovern collected pottery and stone fragments to test for ancient organic material—perhaps the residue of long-evaporated, locally produced wine.


McGovern heads the Molecular Archaeology Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology (MASCA). He is the author of Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture (2003 Princeton University Press). The book is an account of the scientist's long career combining analytical chemistry and biochemistry with archaeology—sometimes with startling results.


McGovern's quest for the origins of ancient wine all began with a sea snail. In ancient times, royal purple, the deep blue dye derived from the glands of Mediterranean mollusks, was the color of kings and emperors—and for good reason. It takes ten thousand glands to produce one gram of the purple liquid. The dye had long been associated with the early Phoenicians.


Early in his career, while McGovern served as a pottery specialist on a University of Pennsylvania expedition to Lebanon, workers excavated pottery fragments that had a dark red residue inside. "We had some samples that were about 3,000 years old, and we started a series of analyses," the scientist recalled.


McGovern's results established with a high level of probability that the residue was genuine royal purple from a pre-Phoenician (Canaanite) site dating back to before 1,200 B.C. "It was a very exciting discovery, which showed that these organic compounds can stick around for a long time," he said.


McGovern reasoned that other high-end organics—such as wine—could be chemically teased out of the archaeological record. In 1988 a colleague, Virginia Badler, brought him fragments of a jar. The shards, dated back to about 3,000 B.C., came from the ancient village of Godin Tepe in the Zagros Mountains of western Iran.


Badler suspected that the reddish stain present on one side of the fragments was wine residue. McGovern's tests proved her hunch correct.


Together with colleague Rudolph Michel, McGovern used several techniques to test the samples, including infrared analysis, liquid chromatography, and a specific wet chemical test for tartaric acid.


"We focused on this one compound called tartaric acid, which in the Middle East is very specific to grapes," McGovern said. "So if you can identify that, then you will show that you have a grape product."


The vessel's shape and stoppered neck indicated that its makers intended to keep oxygen out. (Oxygen turns wine into vinegar.) Further tests indicated the presence of resin from the terebinth tree, a Middle Eastern member of the cashew family.


According to McGovern, aromatic resins were often used in ancient times to preserve wine and sometimes mask unpleasant tastes or flavors. Resinated wines were common. One variety exists today in Greece—the pine tree-flavored wine called retsina.


In all likelihood, the jar once held an ancient vintage of wine. McGovern's detective work indicated that winemaking dated back to at least 5,000 years ago—much older than previously thought.


A few years later, his chemical analysis of pottery excavated from a site called Hajii Firuz, also in Iran's Zagros Mountains, pushed the earliest known evidence of wine back another 2,000 to 2,400 years, well into the Neolithic period.


McGovern's current focus on eastern Turkey reflects his hypothesis that grape domestication, and its attendant wine culture, began in a specific region and spread across the ancient world.


He calls it the Noah Hypothesis, as it suggests a single locality for an ancestor grape, much as the Eve Hypothesis claims that human ancestry can be genetically traced to a single African mother. In the Bible, Noah landed on the slopes of Mount Ararat (in what is now eastern Turkey) after the Flood. He is described as immediately planting grapevines and making wine.


Neolithic eastern and southeastern Turkey seems to have been fertile ground for the birth of agriculture. "Einkorn wheat appears to have been domesticated there, one of the so-called Neolithic founder plants—the original domesticated plants that led to people settling down and building towns," McGovern explained. "So all the pieces are there for early domestication of the grape."


The scientist will run his usual battery of tests on the pottery and stone fragments collected during his expedition in the region. He'll also subject the objects to a special liquid test to confirm the presence of tartaric acid. McGovern's Italian and Turkish colleagues, meanwhile, will carry out the DNA analysis. "Once I start doing the analyses, then we'll see if we have any evidence," he said.


For McGovern, the study of wine, with all its social and economic complexities, can open the doors of perception into ancient civilizations. Even a good bottle of Merlot or Shiraz, enjoyed today, can recreate history, in a sense.


"You feel like you're transported back in time to when this beverage was actually served," the scientist mused. "That's what I think is so exciting about this kind of research. It really is taking those little hints and clues about the organic remains. It makes it come alive."


50 ancient tombs uncovered

From correspondents in Athens

18 jul 04


ARCHEOLOGISTS have discovered 50 tombs dating back to the late Minoan period, around 1400 BC, and containing a number of artifacts on the Greek island of Crete, ANA news agency reported today.


The tombs were part of the once powerful ancient city of Kydonia, which was destroyed at the time but later rebuilt.


The oldest among them contained bronze weapons, jewellery and vases and are similar to the tombs of fallen soldiers of the Mycenaean type from mainland Greece, said the head of the excavations, Maria Vlazaki.


The more recent family tombs are of a more traditional Kydonia type.

Earlier excavations in the area in northwest Crete near the town of Chania had already yielded some 100 burial sites.

© The Australian



Dig set to begin at historic site

Excavations are set to begin at what experts have described as one of the most important archaeological sites in Scotland.


They are trying to discover exactly how much damage was done by a major fire at the site last year.


The dig is taking place on Traprain Law, a hill near East Linton in East Lothian.


The area is noted as having been a major population centre in the late Bronze Age, 3,000 years ago.


In 2003, a fire started by a discarded cigarette end burned through grass and vegetation, damaging some historical remains and exposing others to potential erosion.


It left an unstable mixture of soil, mud and ash.


Investigators are now examining the worst affected areas hoping to carry out rescue and rehabilitation work.


Among the early finds in the current operation have been parts of a mediaeval building, as well as ancient tools, pottery and beads.


In the period AD 80 to 400 Traprain Law's inhabitants had regular contacts with Roman visitors.


A huge hoard of Roman silver items was found on the hill in 1919.

Story from BBC NEWS:


Published: 2004/07/22 05:36:35 GMT





22 July 2004


A FURTHER five silver Iceni coins have been found by a Fincham metal detecting enthusiast a Lynn inquest heard on Thursday.


The coins were unearthed in West Norfolk at the end of April by Charles Sproule, of Midway Villa, Fincham, and were declared treasure trove by coroner Bill Knowles last week.


The news comes after Mr Sproule's last find of a 17th century gold brooch and 34 silver Iceni coins were declared treasure trove by an inquest last month.

Mr Sproule had already found 34 silver Iceni coins between April 2003 and January this year.


Senior landscape archaeologist with Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service, Dr Andrew Rogerson, told the inquest the latest coins were of the same type as Mr Sproule's previous finds.


He said the full set ranged in date from around 35BC to 60AD and estimated that the five newly-discovered coins were from the earlier end of that period.


They were imprinted with horses on one side and one had a basic face on the reverse.


Last month a Frankish coin was also declared treasure trove after Sedgeford man Kevin Brock unearthed it when looking for the missing part of an agricultural machine.


The gold-plated silver coin, which was pierced and may have been used as a pendant, was dated to the 5th or 6th century, and originated from Germanic tribe, the Franks.



Archaeologists uncover Roman ruin


Archaeologists are unearthing the remains of a Roman bridge.


The ruins of the bridge, which would have once crossed the River Tyne, have been undisturbed for thousands of years in Corbridge, Northumberland.


The site has been monitored since the 1970s by archaeologists concerned at erosion of the remains by the river.


In 1995 a trial excavation revealed the rapid rate and severity of the damage caused by erosion, which has increased in recent years.


It is thought the bridge probably collapsed because of river erosion during the Anglo-Saxon period.


Tyne and Wear Museums' archaeology team, with the help of volunteers and trainees, started work on the excavation two weeks ago.


The team has already uncovered the spectacular scale and decoration of the bridge, which would have carried the main Roman road from London to Scotland.

Tyne and Wear Museums keeper of archaeology Margaret Snape said: "This is a very exciting project giving us the opportunity to uncover and display a spectacular example of Roman architecture and engineering.


"We have already made some fascinating discoveries and welcome people to come along and watch us at work."


The work is taking place on the south bank of the river where a huge causeway would have carried the road, known as Dere Street, from the flood plain on to the bridge at a height of 26ft (8m) above the river.


An information tent is due to be set up during the dig so visitors can find out the latest news and will have the chance to handle finds.

Story from BBC NEWS:


Published: 2004/07/19 07:52:00 GMT




Old bones may solve mystery


THE truth about America’s most grisly tale of starvation and cannibalism may finally be revealed after 157 years, following the discovery of a cooking hearth and human bones near Donner Lake in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.

Archaeologists working at the site said the bone fragments were big enough to allow DNA testing to establish whether they belonged to the ill-fated 1846 Donner Party. Other items found at the dig included lead shot, musket balls, jewellery beads and wagon parts. All were buried about a foot deep in a lush meadow, covered with wildflowers and surrounded by 100-ft ponderosa pines.


“We are very excited to find what we believe is ground zero for this location,” said Julie Schablitysky, a co-leader of the dig from the University of Oregon State’s Museum of Anthropology. “The big discovery is a definite hearth. We also found a large piece of charcoal and pieces of bone.”


The Donner Party, a group of pioneers from Sangamon County, Illinois, who were trying to reach California, included two families, the Donners and the Reeds. The party, led by George Donner and joined by others along the route, struggled to cross the Great Salt Lake in Utah and then became trapped by snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains near Lake Tahoe, now a popular skiing destination. The party of 87 ended up at two separate camps — one at Donner Lake (then known as Truckee Lake) and another at Alder Creek, at a lower altitude.


It was at these two camps that many starved to death during the brutal winter of 1846, eating first their cattle, then their dogs, then the boiled leather of their saddles. Eventually, as members of the group started dying, the desperate survivors ate the remains of their dead relatives and friends. In the spring thaw, 47 members of the stricken party were rescued and brought to California through what is now known as the Donner Pass. The last survivor, Lewis Keseberg, was hauled out in April 1847.


Historians, however, have long struggled to separate the facts of the Donner Party story from the myth. Reports of cannibalism have been sensational and often contradictory. Survivors were reluctant to talk about what happened.

“My grandmother wouldn’t speak of it at all,” Lochie Paige, the great-great granddaughter of George Donner, told the Reno Gazette-Journal newspaper. “I remember stories about people passing her house and saying ‘that’s where the cannibal lady lived’. There’s a stigma to it all, but attitudes have changed and the families are now proud of their role in history.” Miss Paige, who works as a nurse in Sacramento, is related to George Donner through his daughter Elitha.

Archaeologists are focusing on a campsite at Alder Creek — until recently a family picnic area — which was found last year by a team from America’s Discovery Channel using ground-penetrating radar. The land, about 30 miles west of the Nevada gambling town of Reno, is managed by the US Forest Service. Another cabin site at Donner Lake was investigated in the 1980s but the dig yielded no human remains, despite turning up plenty of 1840s artefacts.

Workers at the current dig, led by Kelly Dixon, of the University of Montana, as well as Miss Schablitsky, are using search dogs trained to locate where a human body decomposed even if the remains have disappeared. The dogs have proved effective at sniffing samples from graves up to 3,000 years old. Although the Alder Creek site has been marked as a Donner camp since the 1920s, some historians have argued that it is too far from the original pioneer trail.


The new findings at the site could prove them wrong. “Ten years ago, we didn’t have the technology we have today,” said Miss Schablitsky. “Ground-penetrating radar wasn’t common and DNA analysis wasn’t being used for archaeology. We can do so much more now.”


Researchers even believe they have found the spot where George Donner’s wagon overturned, breaking its axle and preventing him from reaching the higher site at Donner Lake. Those who are overseeing the dig include Kristin Johnson, editor of Unfortunate Emigrants: Narratives of the Donner Party. He is particularly interested in finding out whether cannibalism occurred at the lower Alder Creek camp.


The relatives of Donner Party survivors do not believe it did, but Miss Paige said she would accept the judgment of the DNA scientists. “The general public understands the reasons for cannibalism now,” she said. “They realise the pioneers had no choice. What would you do in that situation if you were starving and had kids to feed? The Donner Party story brings out the worst and the best of human nature. If they had not struggled against impossible odds, I wouldn’t be here. They gave me my life. I owe them a debt of gratitude and it’s a debt I can’t repay, except to keep their memory alive.”

— The Times, London.

Chris Ayres




Bones reveal chubby monks aplenty

Martin Wainwright

Thursday July 15, 2004

The Guardian


The full truth about one of Britain's favourite historical fatties has been tracked down by a three-year study of overweight medieval monks.


Robin Hood's companion Friar Tuck had hundreds of real-life counterparts, according to a newly published analysis of skeletons in three monastic burial sites in London.


Suet, lard and butter were wolfed down in "startling quantities" by the closed communities, whose abbots often depended on arranging large and regular helpings to keep their flocks under control.


"The way to a man's heart is through his stomach and this seems specially to have been the case with monks," said Philippa Patrick, of the Institute of Archaeology, at University College, London. "They were taking in about 6,000 calories a day, and 4,500 even when they were fasting."


Arthritis in knees, hips and fingertips showed that the often under-employed monks were seriously obese.


Ms Patrick, whose findings were revealed to the International Medieval Congress, meeting in Leeds, said: "Their meals were full of saturated fats. They were five times more likely to suffer from obesity than their secular contemporaries, including wealthy merchants or courtiers."


The reckless scoffing was in clear breach of St Benedict's austere rules laid down probably in 530, which warned: "There must be no danger of overeating, so that no monk is overtaken by indigestion, for there is nothing so opposed to Christian life as overeating."


Critics, such as Peter the Venerable, who slated monks for "wearing furs and eating fat", were advised however that Benedict had also warned about grumbling: "Brethren would indeed grumble if deprived of the food to which they are accustomed."


The skeletal data, from 300 sets of bones found at Tower Hill, Bermondsey, and Merton abbeys, includes information on a medical condition known now as Dish (diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis) triggered by overeating and a rich diet. "The marks of Dish keep appearing on their skeletons. It forms a coating on the spine like candlewax dripping down the side," said Ms Patrick.


The findings tally with satire that developed a keener edge after the Black Death and food shortages. Friar Tuck was only one of many fat fictional characters based on medieval churchmen by resentful lay storytellers.


The new evidence backs records from Westminster Abbey, showing that six eggs a day was normal for monks. In the middle ages, monkish obesity was Europe-wide. The Portuguese Cistercians had a test: monks unable to squeeze through a certain doorway at Alcobaca monastery's dining room had to fast while slimmer colleagues tucked into "pastry in vast abundance".


A 13th century Cluniac friar's possible daily intake based on Ms Patrick's studies:

11am-1pm Three eggs, boiled or fried in lard. Vegetable porridge with beans, leeks, carrots and other produce of monastery garden. Pork chops, bacon, and mutton. Capon, duck and goose with oranges. Half pound of bread, to use as sop. Peaches, strawberries and bilberries with egg flan. Four pints of small (watery) beer.

4-6pm Mutton gruel with garlic and onions. Posset of egg, milk and figs. Venison with rowanberries, figs, sloes, hazelnuts and apple. Stewed eels, herring, pike, dolphin, lamphreys, salmon, cod and trout. Half pound of bread as sop, sometimes soaked in dripping or lard. Syllabubs of fruit. Four pints of ale. Flagon of sack or other French, Spanish or Portuguese wine.


The Scriptorium: Research

I am a PhD student at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London.

My research is entitled "Greed, Gluttony and Intemperance? Testing the stereotype of the 'Obese Medieval Monk'". It is a multidiciplinary investigation into a broad notion, considering a variety of classes of evidence: historical, art-historical, archaeological and skeletal.

I am working on skeletal assemblages from three sites in Greater London: Bermondsey Abbey, Merton Priory, and the Royal Mint Site, which was the site of St Mary Graces Abbey. These skeletal collections are all derived from rescue digs in London over the last 25 years, and are held at the Museum of London. Meanwhile I am using English monastic sites, documents and iconography to compliment the findings of the osteological analysis.

The skeletal investivation looks at pathological markers of obesity in skeletons of monastic and secular provenance, and proxies for body weight and physique, based upon measurements taken directly from bones and from x-rays of the proximal femur. All the techniques used are non-destructive. The two pathological phenomena I am studying are osteoarthritis and diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (DISH) More information about my research can be found here.

I did a smaller-scale pilot study for my present research as part of my MSc in Forensic Archaeological Science. This concentrated on the prevalence and distribution of osteoarthritis, and found that there were high prevalences of osteoarthritis and indeed obesity-related osteoarthritis (affecting the hip, the knee, and the distal interphalangeal joints of the hand) in the monastic assemblages, compared with the secular control samples. There were some questions left requiring further attention, and I hope to clarify these issues during my PhD research.

As my research draws to a close, I am pleased to say that the results are bearing out what my original MSc study found, and in some ways are even better than I could have hoped for. Epidemiological analysis is confirming that monastic lifestyle presented a significantly greater risk of developing both obesity related OA and DISH.

The documentary side of things is also yielding some interesting information. As far as I have been able to discern, there was a significant change in people's attitude towards monks after the Black Death (1348-1350), which brought with it the emergence of a 'Middle Class' for the first time, educated and vocal in their criticism of the establishment. It is also notable that there was a fairly formulaic means of criticising the religious - gluttony for monks, avarice for friars.

I have had little success with determining physique on the basis of depictions of monks - the billowing habits present a serious problem. However, it seems that there are two potential lines of enquiry: the shape of the face, and the actions of the person depicted. This is certainly an area that would make for interesting future research in more depth than time constraints have allowed me.

If you want to know more about my research, I can be emailed at: pip at pips[hyphen]scriptorium[dot]com.

More information about my academic background, and my research interests can be found here


Monastic Diet

The Rule of St Benedict

In the 6th century AD (c.530), St Benedict outlined a strict set of conventions to be followed by those who found their vocation in the cloister. The diet and lifestyle of monks was, theoretically, strictly controlled, following the moral framework outlined in the Rule. Throughout the Rule, however, it is stated that certain concessions could be made at the discretion of the abbot. The rule sets out a basic daily schedule for monastic brethren, and also gives advice about how monks should behave, and what kind of person is suited to the role of abbot (XXX), cellarer (XXXI) and so on.

What the Rule of St Benedict says about diet

Benedict stated that two characteristics of ‘the tools of good works’ (by implication, who is suitable to take holy orders) is to be “not given to drinking [and] not a heavy eater” (IV.35-36). He stresses that this lack of gluttony is particularly important in a monk who is appointed as a monastery’s cellarer (XXXI.1).

Food was consumed during two meals, dinner (all year round) and supper (Easter to September 14th only). All meals had to be taken during daylight hours (XLI:9), but largely their timing was flexible depending upon season and the weather. Likewise, the timing of evening services (namely vespers) was flexible so that the service could be completed, and the subsequent supper consumed, before nightfall. Some days were assigned as fast days. For example, no midday meal (dinner) was to be consumed on Wednesdays and Fridays between Pentecost and 14 September, unless the abbot decreed otherwise. (LXI.2-4).

The consumption of meat in monasteries was forbidden with one exception: “All must refrain entirely from eating the flesh of quadrupeds, except for the sick who are really weak” (XXXIX:11) .“The eating of meat should be allowed to the sick who are in a weak condition, but when they are restored to health again, all should abstain from meat as usual (XXXVI.9). The Rule regarding food could also be relaxed for old men and children: “Their weaknesses should at all times be taken into consideration, and the letter of the Rule should by no means be applied to them in matters of food. Indeed they should always be thought of compassionately, and they should have their meals before the prescribed times” (XXXVII.2-3). Benedict also states that young boys should receive less food than their elders (XXXIX:10) .

Chapter XXXIX of the Rule relates to the amount of food that should be prepared. St Benedict states that for the daily meal, two dishes should be prepared “to allow for the weaknesses [implicitly the tastes] of different eaters; so that if someone can eat of the one dish he may make a meal of the other” (XXXIX:1-2). The Rule also allows for a third dish to be added “if fruit or tender vegetables are to be had” (XXXIX:3). Brethren are allotted a daily allowance of 1lb of bread (XXXIX:4). When this is consumed is also controlled; on days when there are two meals per day (dinner and supper), a third of each monk’s bread is held back by the cellarer to accompany their supper (XXXIX:5). The precise quantities of food could be adjusted at the Abbot’s bidding if monks’ “work is rather heavy” (XXXIX:6), however, Benedict stresses that “there must be no danger of over-eating, so that no monk is overtaken by indigestion, for there is nothing so opposed to Christian life as over-eating” (XXXIX:7-8).

With regard to drink, St Benedict allows half a pint of wine a day per person but “those .. . to whom God grants the capacity to abstain should know that they will have their own reward” (XL:3-4). Variation in quantity is permitted in certain circumstances (demands of work, heat of summer), but the Abbot “must take care that neither excess nor drunkenness overtakes them. For although we read that wine is not at all a drink for monks, yet, since in our days it is impossible to persuade monks of this, let us agree at least about this that we should not drink our fill, but more sparingly” (XL:5-6). The Chronicles of Matthew Paris (13th century) state that in the early 13th century, the monks of St Albans forwent their wine rations for fifteen years in order that the abbot could afford architectural improvements to the monastery. It should be borne in mind that alcoholic drinks were safer to drink than water in the medieval period, and ale especially was drunk large quantities (Cantrell 2000:620). Across Europe, monastic houses were responsible for many developments and improvements in beer-making in the Middle Ages (ibid. 621). Ale was probably consumed in greater quantities in Northern Europe, where, unlike the Mediterranean region, the climate is not well suited to vineyards; wine in Britain generally took the form of costly imports, while ales could be made closer to home.

Variation of lifestyle/deviation from the Rule over time

The Rule of St Benedict stressed the importance of a basic lifestyle, a form of enforced relative poverty to be experienced by monastic brethren – although they certainly were unlikely to go hungry, in contrast with the true ‘peasants’ of that time (Spencer 2000:1220) . By the later Middle Ages, however, “monastic diet ... was a form of upper-class diet, the equivalent within the cloister of the diet of the nobility, gentry, or urban élites outside” (Harvey 1993:34).

There was inevitably some degree of decline into laxity over time, indeed Peter the Venerable commented upon the laxity of his Cluniac order in the early 12th century, and at the same time Bernard of Clairvaux launched his staunch criticism of the indulgent Cluniacs, promoting the much stricter regime of the Cistercians. The most notable example of Bernard’s criticism of the Cluniacs is his Apologia to Abbot William (1125). Bernard criticises the Cluniacs in no uncertain terms:

“How can these monks be said to keep the Rule? They wear furs and they eat meat and fat. Every day they have three or four different dishes, which the Rule forbids, and they leave out the work it enjoins. Many points of their Rule they modify or extend or restrict as they like”. (Bernard of Clairvaux: Apologia V.11)

Peter the Venerable’s defence was that owing to their background, Cluniac monks were reluctant to give up the lifestyle to which they were accustomed, regardless of the induced poverty intended in the monastic lifestyle, and indeed St Benedict’s constant criticism of monks that grumble about their condition: “We lay special stress on this that the brethren remain free from grumbling” (XL:9)

Perhaps in the case of England there was a degree of ‘distance-decay’ in terms of austerity. The ‘Mother Churches’ of the cenobitic orders were all based on the Continent (for example both Cluny and Cîteaux are situated in France, and Monte Cassino is in Italy). With the centre of authority being so far away, perhaps English monastic houses had greater opportunity for a ‘liberal’ interpretation of the rule. However, the Mother Houses were by no means oblivious to the behaviour and excesses of monks in lesser houses, visitations were made periodically, to check on the houses of each rule. In particular, the Cluniacs were a strongly networked order, with every monastery being required to pay an annual fee to the Mother Church at Cluny.

There may have been practicalities to consider, given that the Rule was written at Monte Cassino in Italy, where the climate is considerably different from that in Northern Europe:

“It is a truism to say that [the Benedictine Rule], especially the lack of a second meal from mid-September to the end of Lent, between twenty-eight and thirty-two weeks later, was more easily supported in the Mediterranean world to which Monte Cassino belonged than in the colder climate of northern Europe” (Harvey 1993:39)

Harvey furthermore states that the fact that (with the exception of warming-rooms) monasteries would have been very cold in winter, thus “in winter, monks needed a great deal of extra energy to keep warm” (Harvey 1993:71). Given the fact that the ‘Little Ice Age’ began in the early 14th century, Britain would have been a relatively hostile climate to inhabit at the time, and more food might have been deemed appropriate. However, there were also famines throughout the first half of the 14th Century, until the Black Death conveniently slashed the population numbers in Britain and indeed the rest of Europe – perhaps it is worth considering the effect this situation had on diet, though as ever the class divide seems to have prevailed and the ‘peasant’ classes particularly affected by food shortages (Spencer 2000:1220).

However, it seems to have been the case that monks, given a concession in respect of particular conditions, maintained that privilege, even when the extenuating circumstances no longer applied: “Having adopted the level of consumption that was necessary in winter, [the monks] continued at or near this level in summer” (Harvey 1993:71). Barbara Harvey notes that with regard to diet, monks found new and increasingly cunning ways of interpreting the Rule of St Benedict, so they could eat ‘irregular’ foods without, strictly speaking, breaking the rule. For example, consumption of the flesh of quadrupeds was forbidden in the refectory, so monasteries had another room, the misericord, added in which monks ate on a rota basis, in which irregular foods such as flesh meat could be eaten, while the monks eating in the refectory consumed foods prescribed in the Rule (this was taken to include offal from quadrupeds, which was not technically flesh meat) . They also stretched the rules regarding what constituted meat – poultry, being two-legged was one such ‘grey area’: “St. Thomas Aquinas, at one point, stipulated that chickens were aquatic in origin; therefore, because they counted as fish, they could be eaten on fast days. At rich monasteries, rabbits were bred for their embryos because these did not count as meat either” (Spencer 2000:1220).

One of the main ways of incorporating extra food (and often richer foods) into the monastic diet was to include ‘pittances’ in a regular meal. These were special dishes consumed on feast days of Saints, as well as on other important occasions such as the anniversary of a founder (Burton 1994:271). So, as Harvey notes, houses simply included the veneration of more saints into their calendar, taking the ‘Cult of Saints’ to unprecedented proportions:

“When the long office was chanted for a saint, when copes were worn, and all the candles lit, some addition to the accustomed fare – an extra dish or an extra supper, or better still both – was only appropriate; and by the eleventh century it was a poor calendar that did not include more than one high-ranking saint’s day every week” (Harvey 1993:39).

What better way for a monastic community to indulge itself than in the guise of piety? Indeed, pittances became such a regular fixture in the monastic diet that by 1495, Westminster Abbey had appointed a ‘pittancer’ to work alongside the kitchener and prepare these special dishes.

Where my research fits in

I am looking at the evidence related to monastic overeating based on the human skeleton. The historical evidence points to ample opportunity for overeating by monks, as well as to a diet that would not be interpreted in the modern day as healthy, low in fresh fruit and vegetables, while extremely high in saturated animal fats. So do the skeletons bear out this picture?

It has been noted by various scholars (e.g. Rogers & Waldron 2001; Waldron 1985; Waldron 2001) that there is a high prevalence of DISH in monastic skeletons - this is a phenomenon thought to be related to late onset (type II) diabetes, and the two conditions certainly share obesity as an aetiological factor. My osteological analysis looks at rates for DISH, obesity related osteoarthritis (i.e. osteoarthritis of the knee, the hip and the hand), and also, using measurements taken directly from the bones, and from x-rays of the femur, to establish body mass index, and weight change through adulthood.