News in brief: Roman diets, a Byzantine warrior, and Cassowary chicks

A brief look at some of the latest exciting archaeological stories.

Roman diets

Analysis of the remains of 17 individuals from the Roman town of Herculaneum who were killed in the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 is shedding new light on ancient diets. The study used isotopic analysis of amino acids obtained from bone collagen in order to identify specific foods, making it possible to reconstruct the individuals’ diets with greater detail than previous studies. It was revealed that fish and shellfish made up around a quarter of their diets, almost triple that of the average modern Mediterranean diet, while olive oil made up at least 12%, if not more, confirming historians’ estimates that the average Roman consumed 20 litres of olive oil every year. Researchers also identified differences in the diets of men and women, with most men eating more seafood and cereals. The results have been published in Science Advances.

Injured Byzantine warrior

A 14th-century Byzantine warrior received advanced medical care after fracturing his jaw. The warrior’s skull was found in 1991, in a cemetery at the fort of Polystylon, Greece, but recent research published in the journal Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry has revealed that his jaw was shattered in two places roughly a decade before he died, and had been carefully reset by someone with considerable medical knowledge. It appears that the jaw was wired shut to allow it to heal, possibly using gold, as there are no signs of the green patina caused by copper staining or the grey discoloration associated with silver. The care that the individual received led researchers to conclude that he must have been someone of high status, perhaps the commander of the fort. This would also explain why he was decapitated by the invading Ottoman army when they captured the site in the mid-1380s.

Cassowary chicks

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons, Summerdrough.

Study of eggshells from two sites in New Guinea has revealed that Late Pleistocene people may have been collecting cassowary eggs near maturity and raising the birds to adulthood as early as 18,000 years ago, several millennia before the domestication of chicken and geese. Researchers developed a new method for determining the stage of development of the eggs when they were harvested and applied it to more than 1,000 fragments from the sites of Yuku and Kiowa. They found that most had been cracked open in the late stages of embryonic development, suggesting that people were either eating baluts (nearly developed embryo chicks) or intentionally hatching the chicks, potentially representing the earliest known evidence of the human management of avian breeding. The research has been published in the journal PNAS.