29 April 2021

Roman Bread Experiment

Students on the Experimental Archaeology module have been recreating Roman bread and the ovens they were baked in this semester.

Roman Bread

The students started the experiment during lockdown, conducting the first part remotely at home. They theorised what methods were used for forming and shaping the famous ‘Panis Quadratus’ loaf found carbonised at Herculanuem (dating to 79 AD) during the excavations in 1930. There are also depictions of these loaves on frescos, such as those at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli in Naples, Italy. Students tested various methods of making these loaves, including cutting with a knife, string, and using two balls of dough instead of one.

Based on their research, it was decided that placing one ball of dough on top of the other, then slicing the lines with a knife (2/3rds of the depth of the dough) was the most accurate method for recreating the shape and decoration on the loaves.

It is believed that these loaves were made from spelt flour, and archaeobotanical studies show that spelt was grown in Britain during the Roman period (Lodwick, 2017). We therefore assumed that a similar loaf would have been made by Roman soldiers located in Britain. 

The next stage of the experiment was to recreate a Roman oven, which would have been used to bake the bread. Doncaster Museum provided information on the remains of a bread oven found in association with the Roman fort at Doncaster; this information helped inform our reconstructions. 

Two ovens were made to test two different ovenforming techniques; one used sand as a mould whilst the other used a woven willow frame.

The ovens were built using clay, which was puddled, and straw and sand was also added, to match the type of material excavated in Doncaster. Once built, the ovens were left to dry for three days - helped by the glorious weather we’ve had! 

roman oven

The ovens were then heated with a wood fire to harden the clay, and then a week later, it was time to bake the bread in our ovens! The bread making methods trialed earlier in the semester were used to shape and decorate the bread. The experiment allowed us to understand the working parameters of the oven; how hot it could get, how long it retained its heat, and how many loaves could be cooked at a time. The experiments were a great success and we learnt so much. 

Conducting the bread experiments remotely during lockdown really brought the class together and allowed us to tick an item off our lockdown “bucket list”. It was also great to be able to conduct a practical in the field by following Covid guidelines. The students thoroughly enjoyed the module and really felt they benefited from being able to get hands-on and practically engage in research.

Yvette Marks

Laboratory Manager and Teaching Technician (Archaeological Science)

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