Deciphering the Anglo-Saxon diet

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With the exception of a few outliers, this scatterplot shows that the majority of individuals buried in the Anglo-Saxon cemeteries of Melbourn and Polhill displayed similar isotopic profiles, indicating that the majority of the population ate a similar diet, regardless of social status. (IMAGE: Emma Hannah)

The 6th and 7th centuries in England were defined by great social change. Along with the gradual conversion to Christianity in many areas, there is also evidence for increasing social stratification, most clearly seen through the emergence of prominent princely burials such as Sutton Hoo. It seems the rich were getting richer, and the poor poorer. A new study by Emma Hannah (Queen’s University Belfast) and Susanne Hakenbeck (University of Cambridge) has analysed how this upheaval may have affected diet during this period. Early Christian proscriptions involving meat suggest that, as more of the population converted, they may have become increasingly reliant on fish. At the same time, with the development of a clear social hierarchy, a distinct dietary difference between social classes may also be expected.

To address these questions, the team assessed 116 individuals from two Anglo-Saxon sites – Melbourn in Cambridgeshire and Polhill in Kent – analysing the bones for carbon and nitrogen isotopes. The results showed some slight variations in diet. For instance, at Polhill a few individuals appear to have consumed more animal protein than others, and at Melbourn fish does not appear to have been a main staple, probably due to its inland location. For the most part, however, both sites were fairly homogenous, with most individuals presenting with similar isotopic profiles. Specifically, when analysing the individuals based on their apparent wealth (as identified through burial characteristics and grave goods), although the moderately wealthy at Polhill appear to have been more meat-reliant, the overall results speak of few drastic differences that would indicate diverse diets based on social status. Similar results have also been found in other contemporaneous Anglo-Saxon communities.

Summarising these findings in their recent paper, published in The Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, the researchers said, ‘This perceived [dietary] uniformity reveals that food was an element of daily life which was relatively immune to drastic change and which remained largely consistent, against a backdrop of social reform. Even the extreme religious changes of the time do not appear to have influenced diet, at least not in any clear, isotopically visible way.’

This article appeared in CA 340.

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