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Gastro-archeology of Siracusa

Palazzo Cappellani
January 28, 2022
Aretusa at the time of the Crusades
February 9, 2022
Museo P.Orsi fragmented sealed ceramic bowl © Regione Siciliana Ph.Giuseppe Mineo


A fascinating article by the great archaeologist Luigi Bernabò Brea (1910-1999)

What the culinary specialties from Siracusa were at the time of the Dinomenids, Dionigi, Timoleonte or the time of Verres compared to the cuisine of the other Greek colonies of Sicily or southern Italy, I truly could not say, as we haven’t found the menù of any of the inns of the time and the ancient historians who worried about many other things, only left us scattered information on this topic. And we have to admit that even in modern times the study of this particular branch of the human arts, despite being no less attractive and pleasant, has been overlooked, and while many volumes on architecture, figurative arts or weapons in antiquity have been written, very little has been written on cuisine.
But while we know little about the gastronomic specialties, we are much better informed about the implements and furnishings of ancient kitchens. The excavation of ancient homes has given us plenty of fragments, rarely some complete remains of pans, casseroles, tins, and even fireplaces. Such fragments allow us to determine the evolution of forms and types over the centuries quite easily. We won’t discuss here what the furniture might have been inside the dining halls of the houses, with the refined, luxurious ceramics which adorned them, the finely worked ceramics painted black and with elegant designs and painted scenes, as even a brief examination would bring us far over the space limits which we are allowed here. So let’s just discuss the kitchen itself, as regards the preparation and cooking of the food, starting with the fireplaces.
Apart from the ovens, which definitely weren’t missing, but of which not a single example has survived intact in the area of Siracusa, no kitchen lacked a small terracotta grill to cook with charcoal.
Museo P.Orsi fragmented sealed ceramic bowl © Regione Siciliana Ph.Giuseppe Mineo
Perhaps already from the age of Timoleonte, the second half of the IV century BC, these grills were made with a certain elegance and had relief decoration. Apart from the countless fragments, two little terracotta models have been found, perhaps children’s toys, one of which is now in the Iudica collection of Palazzolo Acreide , the other at the Museum of Siracusa.
The tray with the holed bottom in which the charcoal would burn was raised on a cone shaped pedestal, open at the front, in which the ashes fell. The pan or casseroles were supported over the grill by three supports which stuck out from the edges towards the centre, not simply rough but usually designed as an animal snout or even more frequently as a long beard coming from the caricatured head of a Silenus. This type of grill must have been preserved for many centuries in Siracusa, and with small variations, over the whole of eastern Sicily.
The pans or casseroles which were to be put on the fire were naturally made with a special technique. They weren’t made of purified clay as other ceramics, but rather were made of a clay paste with siliceous tritumes generally made with sand and volcanic rocks which resist heat much better than simple clay. This is of course a technique still used to this day.
In the oldest phase, in the VII and VI centuries BC, the finest of these pans, and perhaps the ones less likely to crack on the fire, were imported from Greece, probably from the Cyclades or Eubea.
In the necropoli of Milazzo, which dates from the final decades of the VIII century to the first decades of the VI century BC, many pans from Greece have been found, used as burial urns to hold the ashes of the dead. They are spherical vases with a convex base with one or more rarely, two broad vertical handles. Fragments of similar pans have also been found in the excavations of archaic Siracusa.
Museo P.Orsi red image decorated plate © Regione Siciliana Ph.Giuseppe Mineo
In the archaic and Hellenistic ages, the shapes of kitchen vessels seem much more varied and it would be interesting to make a proper classification, something which has been done only partially for single artefacts or some specific excavations, but not for the wider picture, at least not in Sicily.
The most interesting discovery regarding the subject was made only a few years back in the area of the ancient Akrai. On the Caligiore property in contrada Aguglia where excavations revealed the remains of a large farm from the Hellenistic and Roman times and a small rural sanctuary, a cistern filled with ceramic fragments was found, from which so many vases could be reconstructed they now fill a whole room of the Museum of Siracusa. They belong to the advanced Hellenistic era, the last decades of the II century or the start of the I century BC. They are ceramics of common use, destined to serve the kitchen and farm dining hall. There is a large series of pans and casseroles, all with a lid and of the same shape, which are made in various sizes, just like our modern kitchen pan sets. There are pots and pans to cook cakes or flat bread. The countless plates made of a finer clay, grey ‘bucchero’ type with a nice intense black coloured surface - belong to a ceramic class known to archaeologists as “Campana C'' which recent studies believe was produced in Sicily; a type of ceramics which differentiates itself from the long evolution of the Greek ceramic tradition in shape and is the starting point for what will be the shape of classic Imperial Roman ceramics, known as “Aretina” or “sealed earth”. It is the last class of black surfaced ceramics.
During the I century BC the black colour used in domestic ceramics in the Greek age will be abandoned, replaced by the coral red colour which will be exclusive to the Imperial Roman age. Of these black plates, bowls and cups we have a long series of examples, varying from 46cm diameters for serving plates to 10.5 cm for single serving plates.
Museo P.Orsi Sala Kamarina - detail © Regione Siciliana Ph.Giuseppe Mineo
But in this group of Aguglia ceramics, what is extraordinarily interesting other than the kitchen ornaments and tools - including jugs, bottles, oil bottles, salt tins, oil lamps etc. - is a series of capacity measuring cups, including refined cylinder-shaped clay vases which have a mark of the responsible magistrate, the equivalent of today’s weight and measurement office. No other Sicilian finding had given us such a wealth of complete domestic dishes which give us an idea of what the inside of a kitchen may have looked like during a specific period.
We must admit that this is certainly a partial documentation because the rich and varied collections of ceramics must have been integrated by vases and copper and bronze utensils, of which we have much scarser testimony. This is because when a ceramic vase was broken there was nothing else to do but to throw it away, while a bronze vase would still have value and could be melted and reused. This is why metal findings are always rare in ancient home excavations, when these weren’t destroyed violently such as in Pompei or Ercolano.
Published in Del mangiar siracusano, edited by Antonino Uccello, Azienda Provinciale Turismo di Siracusa, 1969
The Museo archeologico Paolo Orsi is a site of the Parco archeologico e paesaggistico di Siracusa, Eloro, Villa del Tellaro e Akrai. Photos provided by the Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana and can’t be duplicated, even partially, by any means.