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Between fasting and feasting: the literary and archaeobotanical evidence for monastic diet in Late Antique Egypt.


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.


Limitations of written evidence

Late Antique Egypt is the best documented province of the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Empire (Bagnall 1988; 1993: 3-8). For example, over 4000 Roman and Late Antique period papyri, providing detailed information on land tenure, taxation and agricultural practice, have been published from the site of Oxyrhynchus alone (Rowlandson 1996). With the wealth of documentary and literary sources which survive from the period, it is possible to address questions about life in Late Antique Egypt in the kind of detail that is not achievable elsewhere in the Mediterranean, where fewer documentary sources survive (Bagnall 1993: 3). There are two main types of written evidence from monastic settlements: documentary papyri (letters, receipts, taxation documents, etc.) and literary stories of saintly lives (hagiographic texts).

Many (Bagnall 1993: 294-5; Brakke 1995: 201; Goehring 1997: 61) have suggested that hagiographic sources cannot be taken at face value. These texts are part of a genre which attempted to advertise styles of monastic life and clearly was intended to establish these saintly figures as role models. It has been shown that the written record (in the widest sense) is biased geographically, temporally and possibly socio-politically (Bagnall 1995: 11-16, 269; Turner 1980: 42-53); and this is also likely to be the case in terms of the written evidence specifically from monasteries. The literary texts, in combination with documents recording the purchase or delivery of foods to monasteries, are our only sources on monastic diet.

As a result, we have focused on the collection of lives and sayings of the ascetic monks that date to the 4th and early 5th century AD. These are found in three main texts: the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Apophthegmata Patrum, AP and VP), the Lausiac History of Palladius (LH), and the History of the Monks of Egypt (Historia Monachorum in Aegypto, HM). These texts contain several different layers of discourse, ranging from the highly theological to the basely pragmatic, from how to live a good spiritual life to how to mend the roof on a hut (Chadwick 1958: 34; Gould 1993: 5-25). Food, fasting and eating habits are an inherent part of these discourses. Fasting was a fundamental part of the monastic life, and it would seem from some of these anecdotes a very troublesome area. Such evidence complements the archaeobotanical material by offering an insight into attitudes towards fasting and feasting.

In addition to these literary texts, documentary evidence (contracts, receipts, taxation records, etc.) also survives, and in this case the texts span the entire period and cover a much wider geographical area. There are two factors, however, that make Egyptian Late Antique documentary sources on agriculture problematic and, furthermore, suggest that archaeobotanical evidence is essential for expanding our understanding of agricultural practice and economy in the period.

First, the documentary records are overwhelmingly dominated by wheat (Bagnall 1993: 23-4; Rowlandson 1996: 236-8) and, in terms of records of foodstuffs from monasteries, only a few other crops are mentioned (Bagnall 1993: 300; Walters 1974: 205-6; Winlock & Crum 1973: 145-9). The documentary evidence for crops is particularly dominated by arable crops (i.e. barley and wheat), and to a somewhat lesser extent by orchard crops (i.e. date, grape and olive). The bias toward arable and orchard crops may simply reflect the fact that these types of agricultural land were regularly leased and subject to taxation and, therefore, are more likely to be recorded in Late Antique Egypt (Bagnall 1993: 23, 115-16; Rowlandson 1996: 35, 229).

Second, in the earlier Greco-Roman period contracts stipulated which crop(s) must be grown by the tenant, but from the 1st century AD onwards, a growing number of contracts allow the tenant free choice of the crop(s) to be planted. For example in the 5th-6th-century records from Oxyrhynchus, 76% of the land contracts do not specify the crop to be planted (Rowlandson 1996: 236-40). Since the documentary records do not reliably reflect the crops grown, archaeobotany is the only source of primary evidence available to provide such agricultural information.

The written evidence for attitudes to food and fasting among the Desert Fathers

What can texts that are primarily anecdotal, and whose content is more about fasting than feasting, tell us about monastic diet?

At face value, the 4th-7th-century AD documentary records from monastic settlements suggest that monks survived on meagre rations, comprising a limited range of foodstuffs (Badawy 1978; Bagnall 1993; Watterson 1988). Walters (1974: 205) goes so far as to suggest that the monastic diet was `at all times frugal'. Specific mentions of food crops in the documentary record from monasteries include barley, beetroot, cabbage, cumin, dates, figs, grapes/raisins, herbs (sometimes green herbs, sometimes dried or preserved), leeks, lentils, lupin, olives, pomegranates, wheat and various unspecified vegetable oils (Bagnall 1993: 300; Dembinska 1985; Gould 1993: 142; Walters 1974: 206; Winlock & Crum 1973: 146-7). Bread and wine also are mentioned (Winlock & Crum 1973: 145-6, 161-2; Clackson 1996: 42).

Although it is possible to draw up a list of foods consumed by monks based on these texts, it is clear that consumption of food was not a straightforward issue within these early monastic communities. As many authors have noted, the production, preparation and consumption of food can be used to convey messages about social relationships (cf. Bynum 1987; Goody 1982). Food and eating, or not-eating, can be used to express both community solidarity and divisive and hierarchical relationships (e.g. family Sunday lunch, `high table'). If an individual chooses not to join in such rituals, they are viewed as creating a distance between themselves and the community (Grimm 1996). Choosing not to eat was an essential of monastic life, but even among the monks it could prove problematic.

The ascetic life demanded all sorts of physical privations. It involved a rejection of the secular world and a removal of oneself from society. Its aim was to suppress all bodily needs and desires in order to free up the mind/soul for contemplation of the divine. Part of this lifestyle included sustained and prolonged fasting. This is not the short-term, occasional specific denial of food such as we might encounter in the observance of Lent or Ramadan, but a life-long commitment to an extremely frugal diet. Fasting was one part of a regime that was aimed at controlling the body. All aspects of bodily desires, hunger, thirst, rest and especially sexual desire, were to come under close scrutiny. In the classical mind fasting and the suppression of sexual desire were closely linked; as was the opposite idea that certain foods, particularly red meat and wine, would `heat up' the body and lead to the arousal of sexual and other appetites (Brown 1988). The limitation of food and of particular foodstuffs was thought to bring about the lack of desire for bodily needs that was an essential part of the monastic life.

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers texts tell us much more about how not to eat and fasting regimes than about daily diet. Monks and hermits in the desert were preoccupied with anxieties about what and how to eat, although it must be said that much of this took place within a discourse whose primary concern was something other than eating -- the question of obedience and submission, for instance (Gould 1993). Monks seem to worry about several aspects of eating regimes, not only what foods to eat and in what manner, but also how to deal with visitors and hospitality. Eating could be a social occasion for hermits in the desert as much as for those in more crowded environments.

There was no single method of fasting that was best, but there were some general rules. For example, Megathias suggests that eating half a loaf each day was preferable to a whole loaf every second day (AP: Megathias 2). Amma Syncletica gave the pragmatic advice: `Always use a single rule of fasting. Do not fast four or five days and break it the following day with any amount of food' (AP: Amma Syncletica 15). Poemen advised similarly: `For my part I think it is better that one should eat every day, but only a little, so as not to be satisfied' (AP: Poemen 31). It was also important that eating should not be a pleasurable experience. To this end Abba Pior always walked while he ate (AP: Pior 2), while Heliodorus was accustomed to eating standing up, but in order to make an exception to celebrate Easter, he sat down to eat on that day (AP: Heliodorus 2). The question and answer dialogues that are common in these writings often read like a problem page for a trainee ascetic: `Abba, I fast for two days, then eat two loaves, am I saving my soul or am I going the wrong way?' (AP: Pambo 2); `Tell me what I must do to be saved'. `Go, and for the whole of this year eat only bread and salt in the evening. Then come back here and I will talk to you again.' (AP: Ares 1). When the monk returned a year later he was told to go away for another year and fast for two days at a time. The lesson was that if you are a hard worker you shall be given ever harder tasks.

Monks also had a problem about how to fast when they were guests or had visitors. It was often in this context that the more luxurious items of monastic diet are mentioned. The subtext was that a monk, alone in his cell, would be satisfied with bread, salt and water, but he must offer hospitality and he must not offend his hosts if offered food that would amount to breaking his fast. These problems were often presented as a terrible dilemma for some monks, but again were part of a wider literary discourse on the relationship between novice and teacher and on how the community and individual should relate to the wider world. The wider world was, of course, what the monk was seeking to avoid. It was full of temptations that impeded the progress of the soul and one of these temptations was food. When meat and wine are mentioned in the texts it is almost always within the context of hospitality. One story tells of some monks who were visiting Alexandria, `to pray and destroy some temples there' who ate some veal without realizing what it was; once they did, they of course refused it (AP: Theophilus the Archbishop 3). Drinking wine fell into the same category. Macarius advised that you should drink wine for your host's sake but then, for each cup of wine drunk, spend a day without drinking water (AP: Macarius 10). Generally though, like with fasting regimes, the advice was pragmatic: a brother questioned Abba Matoes, `What ought I to do when a brother comes to see me and it is a fast day, or in the morning? This worries me.' The old man said to him, `If you don't fuss about it and simply eat with the brother, that is all right, but if you are not expecting anyone and you eat, that is your own will' (AP: Matoes 6).

Eating was also part of the communal and ritual life of monks. They came together for the agape, the communal breaking of bread, after the saying of the liturgy. Even this, however, posed problems for some. Should they drink wine? Should they talk? For those living a solitary life, even the agape could be seen as a place of temptation where a monk could be drawn into things of the world. One story tells of a monk who asked advice about what he should do when he went to church and `they made' him stay for the agape. Sisoes made the ambiguous answer: `It is a difficult business' (AP: Sisoes 2). Obviously monks were torn between the demands of the community and individual fasting regimes. There were obviously similar fears and anxieties about breaking a fast for communal purposes as for the unexpected visitor.

This is all very well and perhaps more sensible advice can be taken at face value, but the problems of making sense of this evidence are compounded by another major subtext: the competitive nature of asceticism and the role that fasting plays within this. Some of these monks were known for amazing feats of self denial; it became a topos of ascetic hagiography that the individual should exceed all others in their privations and self-mortification. It was said of Arsenius that `He lived with us for many a long year and every year we used to take him only one basket of bread and when we went to find him the next year we would eat some of that bread' (AP: Arsenius 17). According to Palladius, Macrius of Alexandria went to extremes to excel in his privations. In response to hearing that monks of Tabennisi ate no cooked food for all of Lent, he lived on raw food for seven years. Later, again as a reaction to another's feat of living on only a pound of bread a day, he put his ration into a narrow necked jar and ate only so much as he could pull out in one handful. Finally in response to the hard-fasting monks of the Thebaid, he began to live only on cabbage leaves eaten on Sundays! (LH 18: 1-2). There are many similar stores of this ilk in the texts and this is precisely their drawback; do they tell us anything useful about monastic diet?

The texts reveal a great deal about the attitudes monks and nuns had toward the basic monastic diet and fasting but unfortunately they reveal little about where this food came from and how it was produced. It is reasonable to assume that exchange for basketry and rope production would not supply all of the food a monastic community required. Certainly, there are a great number of texts which refer to monks working agricultural land (e.g AP: Isaac, Priest of the Ceils 3, 7). We do have evidence in these texts for communal baking (AP: Theodore 1). Even making bread requires cultivating, threshing, grinding and baking. As a result it is likely that a portion of the monastic population had to eat regularly, and a much more substantial amount of food than is otherwise recorded, in order to maintain the physique required for labour, intensive agricultural work or food preparation (such as making bread). In addition to the basics of bread, salt and oil, the texts reveal other foodstuffs that were either cultivated by monks themselves, earned in exchange for labour of some kind, or brought by visitors -- such as lentils, chick-peas, broad bean and peas (VPIV.56.57; VIII.22; AP: Silvanus 7); cabbages and beetroots (HM: X. 7; IV. 69); figs, dates, grapes, apples and cucumbers (AP: Arsenius 16; VP: IV. 17, 60, 70; VII.24). Dairy products are rare in the desert but there is mention of cheese and milk (VP: VIII.18). In the context of sickness among the monks there is mention of luxuries such as wine and honey (VP: IV. 26, 59; AP Eulogius 1; Macarius 10) (see also Dembinska 1985; Harlow forthcoming). The question is, how reliably do these texts reflect actual diets and the availability of foodstuffs? For an answer that will balance the rhetoric of the early Christian writers against actual practice, we need to turn to other forms of evidence.

Archaeobotanical evidence for monastic diet

Although literary and documentary evidence dearly provide an important insight into monastic diet, it is unlikely that these sources present the `whole picture'. Existing archaeobotanical evidence from Late Antique monasteries provide the opportunity to draw a direct comparison between the written and archaeobotanical records of food crops. As a result, it is now possible to consider whether monastic fare was as limited as the written sources would suggest.

In Egyptian Late Antiquity, only 19 crops are attested at monastic institutions (TABLE 1). Out of those 19 attested crops from monasteries, only 14 have been identified archaeobotanically at Epiphanius (Winlock & Crum 1973: 61), Phoebammon (Tackholm 1961), and/ or Kom el-Nana (Smith 1997). Chick-pea and peas have not been recovered from Late Antique monasteries, but they are found at other Roman/Late Antique period sites (e.g. chickpea at Berenike in Cappers 1996, or both chickpea and garden pea from Mons Claudianus in van der Veen 1996). Leek and cabbage have not been identified yet at monasteries; however, these crops are soft, leafy foods and only rarely survive archaeologically in Egypt (e.g. Murray 2000: 628,630; Zohary & Hopf 1994: 183,186). Apple has never been identified in Egypt in any period (de Vartavan & Amoros 1997). It is likely, therefore, that this is somehow a mistranslation and may refer to `bitter apple' (Citrullus colocynthus), a wild gourd.

If we consult the archaeobotanical record from monastic institutions a further total of 30 food crops, which are not attested in documentary sources on monasteries, have been identified through archaeobotanical sampling at Epiphanius, Phoebammon, and Kom el-Nana (TABLE 2). The archaeobotanical evidence from these three monasteries increases the list of available food crops to 49 edible plants, nearly tripling our historically derived knowledge of food plants at these religious institutions. Archaeobotanical finds of fruits and condiments are particularly plentiful at all three monasteries; some nuts and vegetables also are present. These unattested crops do suggest that descriptions of monastic diet as `bland' or `frugal' may be inaccurate.

Although there may be a temptation for researchers to attempt to speculate what the food crops recovered here may represent in terms of the number of calories in a daily ration (e.g. Garnsey 1988; 1999), this is ill-advised, especially given the limitations of the current data (see discussion on limitations of archaeobotanical and documentary evidence above). In particular, the fact that only one monastic site (Kom el-Nana) has been intensively sampled for archaeobotanical remains must mean that our understanding of what crops were in use by these institutions is only at a most rudimentary level. Certainly it is not possible to claim that all the monks (or nuns) at each of these monasteries ate all of the foodstuffs recovered or, indeed, were allowed access to all of these foodstuffs. Nevertheless, the archaeobotanical evidence does illustrate that the monastic diet was much more varied than the documentary records would suggest. As a modern example of what this `varied' diet might mean, it is possible to make a vegetable balti (a type of Indian curry flavoured with ground cumin and coriander seeds, and typically garnished with fresh coriander leaves) using ingredients from this list of archaeobotanical and documentary evidence of monastic food crops in Late Antique Egypt. At the very least, the myth of a frugal, possibly bland, diet has been debunked. As a result of the inclusion of archaeobotanical sampling at Kom el-Nana, it is now possible to propose that monastic diet was varied and potentially quite flavourful. This theory can be tested easily through further archaeobotanical study at other Late Antique monasteries in Egypt.

Cultivation regimes of plants based on the documentary sources

The majority of our documentary evidence is derived from urban landowners of private land. Records of rural landowners are scarce, and tenancy agreements for public or imperial lands do not survive (Bagnall 1993: 116; Rowlandson 1996: 71,203,280). As a result, the historically based study of land tenure and agricultural practice in Late Antique Egypt must be biased, over-emphasizing the role of privately owned lands, particularly those lands controlled by urban landlords. Nevertheless, thousands of papyri documenting the arable fields and orchards of Late Antique Egypt survive, and these documents can be used to reconstruct the cultivation regimes of the food crops identified from the monasteries of Epiphanius, Phoebammon and Kom el-Nana.

Three main agricultural zones are attested in ancient Egypt: arable fields, orchards and gardens. The term for garden and orchard was interchangeable in Roman/Late Antique Egypt (e.g. Rathbone 1991: 16; Rowlandson 1996: 24), but clearly referred to any area set aside for at least fruit trees and vines. The main technical difference between these two types of agricultural land is that orchards were subject to taxation and gardens were largely unregulated in Late Antique Egypt (Bagnall 1993a: 115-116; Rathbone 1991: 16). Since gardens were completely unregulated, it is likely that they are under-represented in the papyrological record (Bagnall 1993: 115-16).

The documentary record also can help us determine the location of the various types of agricultural land. Arable fields clearly are subject to inundation and, therefore, would be located within the flood plain. Orchards and gardens cannot be located on lands which are regularly inundated (e.g. Rathbone 1991:249-51 for artificial irrigation of vineyards), and so would have been located above the flood plain, forming a separate agricultural zone from arable fields. The presence of arable, orchard and possible garden crops at Kom el-Nana means that all three agricultural zones were utilized by this site.

Late Antique documentary evidence for economic crops establishes that cereals, safflower, and linseed were grown as arable crops (Bagnall 1993: 23-33). It is likely that some pulses could have been grown on a large scale, although this does not rule out the possibility that they were also grown in private gardens (Bagnall 1993: 27). Finds of sorghum are becoming more common at Late Antique Egyptian sites (Cappers 1996; Rowley-Conwy 1989; 1991; Smith 1997) and if sorghum is not an import, it is likely that it would be grown in arable fields like the other cereal crops. Olive and date orchards, as well as vineyards, are all attested in Roman and Late Antique Egypt (Bagnall 1993; Rathbone 1991; Rowlandson 1996). Whether other tree fruits were commonly grown in orchards in Late Antiquity is not known (Bagnall 1993: 31). With the exception of juniper berry (Juniperus cf. oxycedrus L./phoenicea L.), which if not an import, can only grow in the Sinai region of Egypt (Hepper 1990: 60; Lucas 1989: 437; Tackholm 1974: 50), and hazelnut (Corylus spp.), which is definitely an import to Egypt, the cultivation regime(s) of all other crops listed in TABLE 2 are unrecorded. Could it be that these unattested crops are from gardens?

Based on our present knowledge, and the fact that the other sectors of the Egyptian agricultural landscape are so well attested, it seems plausible that this component of the food crops found at the monasteries of Epiphanius, Phoebammon and Kom el-Nana were grown in gardens. Monastic gardens are recorded in the hagiographic texts, such as the example of St Antony's garden. One problem, however, is that the hagiographic sources on gardens are not precise. For example, even though we know that Palladius records gardeners at Pachomius' first monastery at Tabennisi (LH 32: 9), no description of the garden or the plants that were cultivated was offered. Archaeological evidence for a possible garden or orchard at the monastery of Kom el-Nana is quite compelling. Evidence of plough/hoe marks, roots and large quantities of leaves have all been found (Smith 1997). The archaeobotanical data clearly show that monasteries supplemented their diet with garden crops and both documentary and archaeological evidence demonstrate that, in some cases, these gardens were located immediately on site. Again, this theory can be tested easily through further archaeobotanical study at other Late Antique monasteries in Egypt.


The existing documentary and literary evidence from monastic institutions does not include information on daily rations (Dembinska 1985: 438); nevertheless, these documents form an important primary source of evidence on monastic attitudes toward diet in Late Antiquity. The inclusion of archaeobotanical data into the study of monastic diet and agricultural practice is not meant to supplant the study of documentary evidence but, instead, to enhance our understanding of such issues as diet or agricultural practice through the inclusion of another, independent form of evidence. What is surprising is that after over a century of excavations in Egypt, the available environmental archaeological evidence to address such issues is so limited (Bagnall 1988). Certainly, the only sure way of increasing our understanding of diet and agriculture in Late Antique Egypt is to regularly incorporate environmental sampling (archaeobotanical, archaeozoological, etc.), within the wider framework of current archaeological, historical and philological studies of the period.

There are `gaps' in the documentary record which can be addressed through the integration of other, independent forms of archaeological evidence with documentary sources. For example, although gardens are rarely recorded, most likely because they are not leased or subject to taxation, arable fields and orchards are frequently recorded. This pattern in the documentary record suggests that crops which are otherwise unrecorded may have been cultivated as garden crops in Late Antiquity. At present the identification of garden crops and the possibility that gardens were a regular feature at monasteries is only a working hypothesis, which requires further analysis of current and future papyrological and archaeological evidence.

It is simply common sense that the typical monastic diet lay somewhere between the two extremes of fasting and feasting, in order for monks to carry out their daily activities and show due restraint in food consumption. The surviving documentary sources, however, demonstrate that monastic attitudes toward food consumption were highly complex. Although restraint in food consumption may have been an `ideal' many Late Antique Egyptian monks and nuns

worked toward, the available archaeobotanical evidence strongly indicates that monastic diet was potentially quite varied and nutritious. It certainly is no longer possible to claim that monastic diet in Late Antique Egypt was bland or `frugal' (Walters 1974: 205).
TABLE 1. Documented crops at Late Antique Egyptian monasteries.

 documented Kom
 at el-
 common name monasteries Epiphanius Phoebammon Nana

 arable crops
 barley [check] [check] [check] [check]
 wheat [check] - [check] [check]

 arable/garden crops
 broad bean [check] [check] - -
 chickpea [check] - - -
 leek [check] - - -
 lentil [check] - [check] [check]
 lupin [check] - [check] [check]
 onion [check] [check] - [check]
 peas [check] - - -

 orchard crops
 date (1) [check] - [check] [check]
 grape/raisin [check] - [check] [check]
 olive [check] - [check] [check]

 garden crops (2)
 beet [check] - [check] [check]
 cabbage [check] - - -
cucumber (melon) (3) [check] - - [check]
 cumin [check] - - [check]
 fig [check] - [check] [check]
 pomegranate [check] - - [check]

 imported crops
 apple (4) [check] - - -

 common name Latin binomial

 arable crops
 barley Hordeum spp.
 wheat Triticum spp.

 arable/garden crops
 broad bean Vicia faba L.
 chickpea Cicer arietinum L.
 leek Allium porrum L.
 lentil Lens culinaris Medik.
 lupin Lupinus alba L.
 onion Allium cepa L.
 peas Pisum spp.

 orchard crops
 date (1) Phoenix dactylifera L.
 grape/raisin Vitis vinifera L.
 olive Olea europaea L.

 garden crops (2)
 beet Beta vulgaris L.
 cabbage Brassica oleracea L.
cucumber (melon) (3) Cucumis sativus L./Cucumis melo L.
 cumin Cuminum cyminum L.
 fig Ficus carica L.
 pomegranate Punica granatum L.

 imported crops
 apple (4) Malus spp.

[check] present in the historical record or as an archaeobotanical

- not present

Historical and archaeobotanical data after AP; HM; LH; VP; Bagnall
(1993: 300); Gould (1993: 142): Smith (1997; forth-coming); Tackholm
(1961); Walters (1974: 206); Winlock & Crum (1973: 61, 145-8, 161-2).

(1) The garden crops could also be grown as arable or orchard crops
in theory, but we are unaware of any records for this. It may be
that the orchard crops are grown in gardens as well. In addition,
it also is possible that some of the fruit trees could be planted
as hedges around fields.

(2) At present, most archaeobotanists do not separate cucumber
from melon.

(3) A date stone was also found at Ermitage I, Cuisine G at Esna
(located in the Thebaid, south of Epiphanius); however, this was
the only food crop identified at this site (Acacia nilotica L. and
some carbonized wood were also recovered), so it has not been
included (Jacquet-Gordon 1972: 92-4).

(4) At present apples have not been recovered from any Ptolemaic
through Islamic period site in Egypt, It may be that there is
some confusion over the meaning of apple and that this in fact
refers to bitter apple (Citrullus colocynthusI (L.) Schrad.),
which has been recovered from late Antique sites, including the
monastery of Phoebammon.
TABLE 2. Unattested crops from Late Antique Egyptian monasteries.

 common name Epiphanius Phoebammon Nana

 arable crops
 flax/linseed (1) - - [check]
 safflower - [check] [check]

 fenugreek [check] - -

 possible garden crops (2)
 almond - - [check]
 Aleppo rue - - ?[check]
 basil - - ?[check]
 bottle gourd - [check] [check]
 carob - [check] -
 carrot - - [check]
 castor [check] - -
 celery - - [check]
 Christ's thorn - [check] [check]
 citron - [check] -
 coriander - - [check]
 dill - - [check]
 Doum palm [check] [check] -
Egyptian balsam or sugar date [check] [check] -
 Egyptian plum or sebesten - [check] [check]
 fan palm [check] - -
 fennel - - [check]
 mulberry - - [check]
 peach - [check] [check]
 persea - [check] -
 purslane - - [check]
 radish - [check] -
 Sycomore fig - - [check]

 sorghum (3) - - [check]

 hazelnut - - [check]
 juniper berry (4) [check] [check] [check]

 bitter apple - [check] -

 common name Latin binomial

 arable crops
 flax/linseed (1) Linum usitatissimum L.
 safflower Carthamus tinctorius L.

 fenugreek Trigonella foenum-graecum L.

 possible garden crops (2)
 almond Amygdalus communis L.
 Aleppo rue Ruta chalapensis L.
 basil Ocimum basilicum L.
 bottle gourd Lagenaria siceraria (Mol.) Stand.
 carob Ceratonia siliqua L.
 carrot Daucus carota L.
 castor Ricinis communis L.
 celery Apium graveolens L.
 Christ's thorn Zizyphus spina-christi (L.) Desf.
 citron Citrus medica L.
 coriander Coriandrum sativum L.
 dill Anethum graveolens L.
 Doum palm Hyphaene thebaica (L.) Mart
Egyptian balsam or sugar date Balanites aegyptiaca (L.) Delile
 Egyptian plum or sebesten Cordia myxa L.
 fan palm Medemia argun Wurttemb. ex Mart.
 fennel Foeniculum vulgare (L.) Mill
 mulberry Morus sp.

 peach Prunus persica (L.) Batsch
 persea Mimusops schimperi Hochst.
 purslane Portulaca oleracea L.
 radish Raphanus sativus L.
 Sycomore fig Ficus sycomorus L.

 sorghum (3) Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench.

 hazelnut Corylus sp.
 juniper berry (4) Juniperus oxycedrus L./Juniperus
 phoenicea L.

 bitter apple Citrullus colocynthus (L.) Schrad.

[check] present as an archaeobotanical find

- not present

Archaeobotanical data after Smith (1997; forthcoming); Tackholm (1961);
Winlock & Crum (1973: 61).

(1) There are no records for the use of linseed oil; however, flax
for weaving is attested (Winlock & Crum 1973: 156-7).

(2) The garden crops could also be grown as arable or orchard crops
in theory, but we are unaware of any records for this. It may be
that the orchard crops are grown in gardens as well. In addition, it
also is possible that some of the fruit trees could be planted as
hedges around fields.

(3) At present, there is no definitive evidence for the cultivation
of sorghum in this region of Egypt; however, finds of sorghum at
Qasr Ibrim (Rowley-Conwy 1991) in Egyptian Nubia may suggest that in
some regions of Egypt, sorghum was cultivated. Watson (1983: 11)
seems to have incorrectly `translated' Schweinfuth's identification
of Andropogon sorghum (Winlock & Crum 1973: 61) as cultivated
sorghum (Sorghum bicolor L.). According to Boulos (1995: 206),
Andropogon sorghum (L.) Brot. is a synonym for Sorghum virgatum
(Hack.) Stapf, which is not cultivated but is, instead, a common
weed in most regions of Egypt, except the Red Sea Coast (Tackholm
1974: 762). No details of the quantity, specific plant parts or
suggested use were provided in the Winlock & Crum (1973: 61) report.

(4) Juniper berry only occurs in the Sinai region of Egypt and,
therefore, is a definite import into the Nile Valley (Hepper
1990: 60; Lucas 1989: 437; Tackholm 1974: 50).

Acknowledgements. This paper results from Ph.D research carried out by both authors at the School of Archaeological Studies, University of Leicester. Research by Harlow into monastic attitudes toward diet formed part of her Ph.D research on women in Late Antiquity funded by the British Academy, and research by Smith on the archaeobotanical assemblage from Kom el-Nana was funded by the Natural Environmental Research Council (award no. GT4/94/7/B). Excavations at Kom el-Nana are directed by Barry Kemp on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Society, and we would like to thank both for their support of this work and permission to discuss the Kom el-Nana archaeobotanical results. Both authors particularly would like to thank Lin Foxhall for encouraging this collaboration. Wendy Smith is grateful to Lin Foxhall, Delwen Samuel and Marijke van der Veen for comments on the initial ideas behind this paper, which first appeared as part of her thesis. Finally, we would like to thank Simon Esmonde-Cleary, Tony Leahy and Barry Kemp for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper, and Mark Breedon for preparing FIGURE 1.

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Received 12 June 2000, resubmitted 4 December 2000, accepted 11 May 2001, revised 13 August 2001
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Author:Harlow, Mary; Smith, Wendy
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Date:Dec 1, 2001
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