The Contribution of Zooarchaeology

Authored by: Paul Halstead

The Routledge Handbook of Diet and Nutrition in the Roman World

Print publication date:  October  2018
Online publication date:  October  2018

Print ISBN: 9780815364344
eBook ISBN: 9781351107334
Adobe ISBN:


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The role of animals in Roman diet and nutrition was multifaceted and variable, posing a wide range of questions: what products were eaten of which types of animal, by whom and on what occasions? How were they prepared and distributed for consumption? In what relative and absolute quantities were they consumed and to what extent did they meet the cultural aspirations and nutritional needs of different demographic and social groups? Zooarchaeology, in the conventional sense of the study of animal remains – and especially the macroscopic study of durable skeletal remains – is a rich and essential tool for addressing such questions. Skeletal remains are available far more widely, not only temporally and geographically but also across different social groups, and are less subject to the promotion of idealised visions of consumption than the iconographic and written records on which work in this field was primarily dependent until recently. Moreover, with ongoing excavations and advances in macroscopic, microscopic and biomolecular analytical methods, the volume and resolution of skeletal data are increasing – and will continue to increase – much faster than the discovery of new images or texts. In common with images and texts, however, osteological evidence requires careful source criticism to realise its potential without falling foul of its limitations and ambiguities. Accordingly, the first section of this chapter outlines how the zooarchaeological record is formed and how zooarchaeologists extract meaning from it by ‘identification’ and recording of physical remains and then analysis and interpretation of recorded data. The second section then evaluates the potential of zooarchaeology to answer the questions listed above.

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