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Holiday Foods Tempting You? These Ancient Monks Would Have Understood

by Barbara J. King
Dec 26, 2012

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For those of us who've succumbed to food temptations this holiday season, there's comfort in knowing we're in good historical company.

Archaeologists have published a paper suggesting that some Byzantine monks in 6th-century Jerusalem consumed foods that fell outside their proscribed diet.

In the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, Lesley A. Gregoricka and Susan Guise Sheridan report chemistry analysis done on bones from 54 monks' skeletons. According to stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis, some of the monks ate bread, fruit, and vegetables— congruent with what a monastic diet of this time should be, according to earlier data from archaeology and information from texts.

Other of the monks, however, were clearly eating animal protein, "an unexpected result based on both the rarity and expense of these luxury food items as well as dietary prohibitions associated with an ascetic monastic lifestyle."

At least one media report on this discovery has gone a bit gleeful at the monks' fall from grace, calling them "greedy gobblers." But Gregoricka and Sheridan do say that some of the monks — maybe the higher-status monks— were eating eggs, cheese, milk, and possibly fish or meat.

Bone-chemistry analysis is a fantastic archaeological resource for bringing more alive than ever before the habits of ancient people. And sometimes we can recognize a bit of ourselves in those habits.


You can keep up with more of what Barbara is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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