In the Bible, the southern Levant is often referred to as ‘the land flowing with milk and honey’, suggesting a fertile area, filled with abundance and pleasure. Today, this region corresponds to southern Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, making for a highly diverse landscape. Back in the Bronze Age (3,600-1,200 BC) and Iron Age (1,200-586 BC) the peoples occupying the southern Levant witnessed many seismic social, political, and cultural changes. This period is also of key importance for understanding the historical context of two of the great monotheistic religions: Judaism and Christianity. So it is no surprise that the Bronze Age and Iron Age of this region are popular research topics. Scholars typically focus on subjects like the development of complex urban-based settlements, the construction of fortifications, the rise of monarchies, trade networks, and so forth. But while these topics tackle the major developments of the era, they do not always provide much sense of what everyday life was like. One question that still needs answering, for instance, remains entirely relatable nowadays: what did they get for supper?
Food for thought
When it comes to the southern Levant during the Bronze and Iron Ages, those seeking to understand ancient diets have three lines of evidence to draw on: ancient texts, and both direct and indirect archaeological evidence. Among the first are surviving administrative texts, business transactions, and sometimes even menus, which note the kinds of foodstuffs being consumed, sold, or taxed. Naturally, such details are invaluable, but, because the southern Levant has been controlled by numerous different empires, among them the Egyptians, Hittites, and Assyrians, these sources were compiled in various different ancient languages, complicating their study today. Archaeology can also be added to the mix by providing indirect evidence in the form of structures or artefacts used to obtain, process, or store food, such as silos, ovens, animal pens, yokes, and fishing hooks. Meanwhile, animal and plant remains can offer a wealth of direct evidence for what was being eaten, allowing us to identify staple foods, how animals were butchered and at what age, and what these animals were used for. Pathologies – that is traces of disease or injury – can show if animals were cared for, or repeatedly forced to undertake onerous tasks. Draught animals provide a classic example of the latter, as they are commonly afflicted by arthritis. Biomolecular methods are also now providing vivid glimpses of past diet. Lipid analysis, for instance, can reveal the former contents of pots, while isotope analysis sheds light on what people and animals ate and the sort of environment they grew up in.
Using these various categories of evidence reveals that the diet of people living in the southern Levant differed between the Bronze Age and Iron Age. It is useful to consider these changes alongside the key socio-political and economic developments of these eras. During the early and middle phases of the Bronze Age, for example, we see the development of the first complex urban-based societies. These settlements were underpinned by a mixed agricultural economy involving both crops and livestock. Sheep and goat were the main sources of meat, and consumed in sufficient quantities to suggest that most people were able to acquire them. Cattle, by contrast, were mostly used as beasts of burden, but also eaten from time to time on special occasions. There is a practical dimension to this, after all it is easier to divide a sheep or goat between a few families than a cow, which – depending on its size – can feed hundreds of people. Pigs were also eaten, but did not form an important source of meat. Game, such as deer, boar, and gazelle were hunted sporadically, while fish and poultry would also have been on the menu. Among the last, though, the now omnipresent chicken only became common during the Iron Age. When it comes to crops there was a heavy reliance on emmer wheats, glume wheats, lentils, and garden peas, all of which have the added advantage that they can be stored in silos as insurance against those years when harvests fail.
The dawn of the Iron Age is marked by the rise of many new cultural identities such as the Israelites, the Judahites, the Philistines, and the Phoenicians. Even though sheep, goat, and cattle were still the most frequently consumed animals, changes in diet are apparent. Animal bone assemblages suggest less hunting of wild animals, while pigs all but disappear from the menu, except at Philistine urban sites. Emmer wheats were generally usurped by common wheats and durum wheats, probably because they would have provided higher yields and required less work to process since the grains do not need to be husked. However, the Egyptian influence in the region ensured emmer wheats did not entirely disappear, as it was needed for bread and beer. There is also evidence for more pomegranate, olive, and grape in the diet, with these last two growing in importance as trading commodities as well, in the form of olive oil and wine. We can see that from the Iron Age onwards, dromedaries became more common in the southern Levant. These animals, much like cattle, were mainly animals of labour, but occasionally ended up on the menu. Dromedaries would also have made travelling the longer trading routes easier and more efficient, even allowing trade with southern Arabia.
Of course, these were not the only products served up in the southern Levant during the Bronze and Iron Ages. Fish formed an important part of the diet, which comes as no surprise considering most of this region lies close to seas or lakes. Pickling or drying fish allowed it to be transported over long distances, too. As for the southern Levant being a land of milk and honey, the numbers of goats and sheep (and, later in time, cattle) cover the former, while evidence for large beehives at Tel Rehov catered for the latter.
Knowing what was being eaten does not tell the full story, though. Just like today, people in the past favoured certain cuts or types of meat over others. Animal bones allow us to explore these preferences. Hind limbs, for example, are often well represented at archaeological sites, and also the meatiest part of an animal. Finding large quantities of foot bones and vertebrae, by contrast, can be an indication of a butchery site, since these body parts have the least meat on them. Some caution is needed here, as even these elements can be used in meals, especially by those unable to obtain better cuts of meat. Indeed, butchery marks on such bones or traces of burning, clearly show that some people were getting what meat they could. Meat could be prepared in various ways: drying, boiling, or grilling. By examining the preservation of the bone, zooarchaeologists can recognise whether a bone was boiled or grilled.
Animals – and here I will talk about sheep and goat – are slaughtered at different ages to obtain different products. When sheep or goats are dispatched while still young, it is because people want to get as much milk from their mothers as possible. As this goal requires lactating females, there is also a tendency for a high proportion of the young males to be slaughtered. After all, you only need a few males for breeding, while many more females are necessary to produce plenty of offspring, as well as milk. This can be drunk in its pure form, which is particularly common with goat milk, or processed to make products such as cheese. If, though, the aim is to secure the highest quality meat, the best time to slaughter an animal is when it is a young adult, meaning between two and three years old (that said, people occasionally slaughtered younger animals, just like today, since the meat is more tender). When adult or older animals are slaughtered, it is generally because they had previously been used for something else. In the case of sheep, it is often a sign of their value as a source of wool. In this way, the age of animals can give a real sense of what individuals’ priorities were in the past, and how they responded to new opportunities or obligations. A fine example, from the later stages of the Iron Age, is when the Assyrians occupied the southern Levant and imposed taxes on the region. Wool was among the commodities taken in tax, leading to an increase in sheep at certain locations.
One Iron Age dietary topic that does receive plenty of attention is the existence of a pig taboo. As we have seen, pigs were occasionally consumed during the Bronze Age, but during the Iron Age there is a drastic decline in the numbers of such animals among the bone assemblages from most sites. The exception here is the Philistine sites – that is, those within the ancient region of Philistia – where pork was clearly still being consumed in some quantity at the urban centres A well-studied example of such a site is Tell Miqne/Ekron, where pork took up around 20% of the diet during the early Iron Age. On the strength of this, some scholars argue that pork is a signature of Philistine presence and so can be used as a cultural marker. It certainly offers a marked contrast to those sites in the region predominantly inhabited by Israelites. The inhabitants of Shiloh and Mount Ebal, for example, completely avoided consuming pork. Even so, other scholars stress that the full picture is more complex, with some groups – such as the Phoenicians – still consuming pork in small quantities. Equally, another danger with using the presence of pigs in the diet as a cultural marker is that not all Philistines seem to have had equal access to this meat. Evidence for pork being consumed is far rarer at Philistine rural sites than in the major towns. It seems, then, that debate about the full archaeological implications of the pig taboo is set to run for the foreseeable future.
The bill, please!
I hope this whistle-stop tour of the southern Levant illustrates that past diets are a vital part of archaeological and historical research. By understanding what people ate, the reasons behind their choices, and how they produced their food, we can obtain a fuller picture of subsistence and agricultural practices. This, in turn, helps us understand the broader framework underpinning the political, social, and economic developments occurring during this turbulent time. As more animal and plant assemblages are investigated, and new scientific methods provide fresh insights, we can be certain this picture will become more detailed in the future. So the only question that remains for now is: what would you like for supper?