Monastic diet in Late Antique Egypt

The Late Antique Period in Egypt (AD 330 – 642) is well documented through Greek and Coptic papyri, parchment and ostraca. While the Greek texts mainly describe the propertied classes, those of the Coptic period comprise Christian writings, many of which relate to monasticism. During the 4th to 5th centuries AD, numerous monasteries were constructed in the desert, close to the Nile valley.

Coptic literature suggests that animal products were not common items in the daily diet of Egyptian monks. Meat, fish, cheese and eggs were restricted foods, so much so that only sick monks were allowed them, and this has led to the assumption that monastic fare was mainly vegetarian. This has led in turn to the assumption by papyrologists that terms such as garum and taricheion, which elsewhere would refer to ‘fish sauce’ and ‘pickled fish’ respectively, refer in monastic contexts to other preserved comestibles such as pickled herbs or vegetables. However, this was challenged in 2002 by Clackson, who observes that dried and salted fish were found during excavation at the monastery of Bawit. Moreover, some monasteries own herds of cattle and flocks of sheep and goats, yet again animal products are overlooked by default.

The site of Kom el-Nana is situated 304km south of Cairo on the east bank of the Nile at the southern edge of Tell el-Amarna. The site has been dated to the Late Antique Period (AD 425/50 – 650) via coinage and pottery, and identified as a monastery through three ostraca and graffiti. The pharaonic site of Tell el-Amarna, on the other hand, was only occupied for twenty years (c. BC 1350), and thus provides a unique and valuable insight into the workings of a New Kingdom city.

Much of the Kom el-Nana mammal bone is heavily fragmented and was recovered from alley and floor deposits, as opposed to the middens which contained most of the bird and fish bone. Clearly the monastic community had consumed beef, pork and ovicaprid flesh, but in what quantities was impossible to ascertain. Dog and donkey remains show no signs of butchery and most likely constitute a pet/scavenger and a beast of burden respectively. There is no evidence for the hunting of wild mammals.

By virtue of carcass size, beef was pre-eminent at Tell el-Amarna, although pork and ovicaprid flesh were important dietary items. The workman’s village assemblage from Tell el-Amarna is dominated by pig bones; indeed, pig and goat bones outweigh those of cattle. The villagers diet was supplemented by wild beasts.

Despite the sparseness of the monastic avian bone, it is evident that the community ate chicken, pigeons, and doves. It is not known whether pigeons were domesticated but it seems likely since cotes were commonly used during the Graeco-Roman period.The occasional duck and quail were also consumed. The bird bones recovered from the Pharaonic sites, on the other hand, are mainly those of winter-visiting waterfowl: great cormorant, teal, mallard, European coot, white-fronted goose, and greylag goose. The greylag goose may have been domesticated, but no eggshell of domestic birds has so far been found in the Pharaonic Period. Indeed, in contrast to the monastery, there is no evidence for any domesticated birds.

Shellfish were eaten at Kom el-Nana, but it is difficult to assess their importance on other sites due to insufficient sampling. Fish was also clearly an important dietary item; the preponderance of fish remains in the monastic assemblage is striking. There are distinct differences in the consumption of fish between the Pharaonic and Late Antique Periods at Tell el-Amarna and Kom el-Nana respectively. Schall was the main fish eaten by the monks following Bagrus, but although the Ancient Egyptians consumed schall, they also consumed greater numbers of more palatable fish, such as the Alestiidae, Tilapiini, Clarias, mormyrids and mugilids. Floodplain fishing was more predominant in the Late Antique Period as evidenced by the occurrence of very small schall.

Reference: Luff, R.M. 2007. Monastic diet in Late Antique Egypt: zooarchaeological finds from Kom el-Nana and Tell el-Amarna, Middle Egypt. Environmental Archaeology 12 (2): 161-174

See also:Butchery – Variation through Time and Space‘ for more about Tell el-Amarna.

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