Spices and Medicine


Marijke van der Veen

The Roman and Islamic Spice Trade - Early Globalisation

10:30-11:00 AM

ABSTRACT: Recent excavations at Berenike and Quseir al-Qadim, both ancient ports located on the Red Sea coast of Egypt, have provided new evidence for the spice trade. Due to the arid conditions botanical remains were present in abundance at these sites and these included spices such as black pepper, ginger, cardamom and betelnut, as well as a wide range of other food plants. Berenike functioned as a port during the Roman period (ca. AD 1-550), while Quseir al-Qadim was active during both the Roman and Islamic periods (ca. AD 1-250, known as Myos Hormos, and again during ca. AD 1050-1500, known as Kusayr). This paper will present and explore the archaeological evidence from these ports. Marked differences between the two chronological periods point to changes in the nature and scale of the trade between the Roman and medieval Islamic periods, in the way the spices were utilized in those periods, and highlight a shift in the way the inhabitants saw themselves and located themselves in the wider world.

About the Speaker

Professor Marijke van der Veen is Professor of Archaeology at the School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester, UK. An archaeologist specialising in the field of archaeobotany - using botanical remains from archaeological excavations as her primary data - her research emphasises the meeting of biology and culture through reconstruction of ancient agriculture and the archaeology of food. Her work has focused on agricultural economies (e.g. Iron Age and Roman Britain; prehistoric and Roman North Africa), food supply to Roman quarry sites in Egypt (Mons Claudianus and Mons Porphyrites), and, more recently, the Roman and Islamic spice trade (through archaeobotanical data from Myos Hormos/Quseir al-Qadim, Red Sea coast, Egypt), and tracing the dispersal of foods into NW Europe between c. AD 1-1500.

Prof. van der Veen studied History and Archaeology at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, and undertook the MA in Economic Archaeology and her PhD in Archaeobotany at the University of Sheffield. She worked at Durham University for five years as the English Heritage adviser of environmental archaeology for northern England before joining the School of Archaeology & Ancient History at University of Leicester in 1992. She is author of Crop Husbandry Regimes (1992) and Consumption, Trade and Innovation (2011; this publication concerns the spice trade and results from Quseir al-Qadim), as well as editor of The Exploitation of Plant Resources in Ancient Africa (1999), Luxury Foods (2003), Garden Agriculture (2005), and Agricultural Innovation (2010); the latter three are issues of the journal World Archaeology.