Dining With Romans: an Exhibition on Food in Marseille

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We’ve Invented Nothing!: Products, Commerce and Gastronomy in Ancient Rome, On n’a rien inventé ! Produits, Commerce et Gastronomie dans l’antiquité romaine, Museum of Marseille’s History, Marseille, France


Sometimes it feels like the modern world has an obsession with food which is unlike anything European society has experienced before.  Social media is playing its part in exaggerating the natural interest people have in food so that it becomes an obsession.  Yet I think that if the Romans had had the internet, they’d have been posting #food every five seconds too.

The fact that the Romans took their food very seriously is best demonstrated by the fact that they were happy to trade speciality goods across the dangerous seas, throughout the Mediterranean.  I, as a resident of Marseille, say, demand my quinces from the Aegean, my olive oil from Betica and my wine from Italy.  And what else are all those damn good roads for, if not for bringing me figs, garum and a myriad of fish products?

The Departmental Museum of Ancient Arles worked together with the Museum of the History of Marseille on a great little exhibition on the products, trade and tastes of the ancient Romans.  First, we looked at some of the fancy objects that Romans used to dispense their food and drink, like the bronze jug. 

The curators did a great job of combining the old with the new: if there was a Roman fish sauce, they had a bottle of its modern equivalent to demonstrate the continuity of human taste.  It’s funny, but when I first started to learn about Rome, there was a general consensus that garum, fermented fish sauce, was disgusting.  It sounds disgusting.  Then I found out that it’s basically a staple of Far Eastern cuisine.  An exhibition like this is great at giving you that same type of information quickly, visually, in every display.

What the exhibition also demonstrated was just how incredible the world of archaeology can be.  The fact that perishable goods like grains and nuts have survived is extraordinary, but so is the fact that there are containers for foods with tags clearly indicating what’s inside.  Quality wines, fish products, honey… these contents are all readable on the amphora found recently in the waters of the Rhône in Arles.

One of the many examples of continuity in human taste is with wine.  The Romans, in written sources, make it clear that the best wines were aged, with different types of wine reaching their ‘peak’ at different times.  An aspect of this sophisticated scale of defining the quality of the wine is seen in the labels on some of the amphora on display, where there are statements to the effect that the wine is just old, or references to the consuls of the year in question, which was the best way of dating anything in the Roman world.

The painted inscriptions on the amphora are fascinating.  They discuss the product within, its quality, vintage, and weight, before putting the name of the merchant.  That such labels were seen as being important again demonstrates the discerning tastes of the Roman public – for whom the fact that this wine was made by the Caecilius family meant as much as Hardy’s Wines might today, for example.

Some of the objects used by the Romans are also interesting.  It’s not surprising that they had whisks, but it is cool to see one.  The pipettes, used to help sample wines, are also super awesome, and I didn’t even know that they existed until recently.

The exhibition finishes with an interesting installation.  In 1983, the artist Daniel Spoerri invited a hundred of his friends to have ‘Lunch on the Grass’.  They were asked to bring a plate, glass, cutlery and a personal object.  During the meal, the trays which had been serving as tables for the guests were buried in a trench, with all the objects still on them.  Twenty-seven years later, the archaeologist Jean-Paul Demoule started excavating the site.  What is interesting is that the hundred people involved were contacted to get their version of what happened the afternoon, and they didn’t really remember!  Some folk claimed not to have been there, even though photographs prove otherwise.  No one remembered where the trench was dug.  This experiment demonstrates just how historical ‘facts’ and ‘first-hand evidence’ aren’t always/are rarely reliable.  When examining the past, the archaeologist consults written sources, but must also remember to take it all with a pinch of salt – but then, don’t we all think we should treat everything told to us with caution?

⁨Final room of the exhibition, where they’ve created an excavation of the future, with modern objects looked at like ancient ones, “We Have Invented Nothing!” Exhibition, Museum of Marseille’s History⁩, ⁨Marseille⁩, ⁨France⁩

The unreliable testimonies aside, the installation also gives a glimpse into the future of archaeology.  It’s a depressing thought that if the world is still occupied by intelligent beings in 2000 years time, they will be digging up the crap that we leave behind from our lives.  The plastic straws, acrylic nails, iPhones… what superficial people they’ll think we were…

So In Summary

This excellent exhibition has sadly finished, but it was a fine example of how to make archaeological finds interesting to a wide audience.  As it happened, I’d seen some of the objects at an exhibition in Geneva some months before.  Many have their permanent home in Arles, but the museum clearly cannot accommodate the incredible influx from the Rhône underwater excavations into their collections.  To send them out to exhibitions elsewhere is a great way of sharing and showing some of the wonderful discoveries that are still being made and the fascinating new information about the Roman world that such humdrum-seeming artefacts can reveal.

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