Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Reference Book of the Week

Today's pick: Eating and Drinking in Roman Britain, by H. E. M. Cool, a professional archaeologist and archaeological consultant. First published in 2006 by Cambridge University Press.

The paperback edition is good value at 294 pages for $36.99, and even better at Amazon's current discount price ($29.59). No color plates, but a reasonable number of black and white photographs and some nice line drawings, also a lot of tabulated data of various types. There are also good reference maps in the front for the various localities discussed - particularly helpful for those not familiar with British geography. The reference list is good, and the data for the tables is fully and professionally attributed in the appendices.

This is a book for the serious Roman Britain enthusiast, amateur or professional. In addition the book is clearly and even amusingly written, with a dry and perceptive wit which makes it a pleasure to read. A brief quote from the preface will show the flavor: "Roman Britain is a very strange place, much stranger than the many popular books written about it would lead one to think ... This book is offered as a kind of hitchhiker's guide to those who would like to explore this material, but who lose the will to live when faced with the reams of specialist reports that even a minor excavation can generate."

After an introductory chapter ("Aperitif"), the author discusses the food itself, packaging, what we can learn from human remains, written evidence, kitchen and dining basics, staples, meat, dairy products, poultry and eggs, fish and shellfish, game, greens, and drink. This is followed by four time-based chapters covering the conquest, the development and decline of Roman Britain, and the period after the Roman withdrawal. This book will not give you recipes for Roman Britain - there are other books for that - but it will tell you the state of current archaeological knowledge regarding what foodstuffs and drinks were available in various parts of the country and how people were probably using them. In the process the author uses this evidence to tell us some surprising things about those people themselves. Highly recommended.

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