What did they eat at the Lord Ashley site?

Have you ever traveled far from home and missed foods that you normally eat? What do you think it would have been like for these early colonists who traveled far from home to a new and unfamiliar place? Were they able to eat any foods that were familiar to them, or was everything new? How much food was shipped in for them and how much did they have to grow for themselves? What if their crops failed – would they be able to get enough food to survive? Did they eat any wild foods? Did they get any foods from the Native Americans?

A common question that archaeologists try to answer is what kinds of foods did the people in the past eat? Answers to this question help us to learn what types of foods were available in the natural environment, as well as through trade and exchange. One of the major questions at Lord Ashley is what types of crops and foods did they plant and raise on the plantation. Once we have an understanding of this, then we can take it a step further and look at all of the food remain from the site and figure out what they planted and raised versus what they caught, hunted, and foraged for and the foods they traded for. This will help us better understand the purpose of the plantation, or what crops they grew. It also helps us learn what the natural environment was and what wild foods and fauna were available for them. And finally, we can see what foods were brought in as trade items to get a better grasp on trade and economic relations between the Lord Ashley site and the world.

Archaeologists have different ways to study the foods people ate in the past. We can learn a lot about what and how people ate and cooked in the past by studying the broken bits of pottery, glass, and other kitchen related items we find like forks, knives, and iron kettles. From the pottery we can see what forms of dishes they had – are they bowls, plates, crocks, cups. From this we can learn about how they prepared and ate their foods – for instance if there are a lot of bowls we can assume they were eating foods that are more liquid like soups and stews. If there are a lot of plates then they likely ate more solid foods like roasts, potatoes, and vegetables.

Archaeologists also study the faunal, or animal bone, remains to see what types of animals they ate, like fish, chickens, cows, and deer. We can also learn about the plants people ate by taking special samples to look for seeds, pollen, fossilized plant cells, and the remnants of fats from foods. Previous excavations at the Lord Ashley site found evidence of the types of foods that these early colonists were eating in the late 1600s. An analysis of the animal bones done by Dr. Elizabeth Reitz and her student Sarah Bergh at the University of Athens found evidence that they were eating a diet of both domesticated and wild animals. We recovered the remains of domesticated cows, chickens, and pigs; and wild animals include turtles, wild birds, deer, and bony fish. Interestingly we also found the remains of a domestic cat. Was this cat brought here to help the colonists by hunting rodents and vermin? Was it a pet? Dr. John Jones from Washington State University studied the pollen from the Lord Ashley site which gives us an even bigger picture of what they ate. The pollen suggests that  fruit trees used to grow nearby including cherry, plum, peach, apricot, and almond trees. It is also likely that wheat and corn were grown on the plantation.

As Andrew Agha has discussed in an earlier blog, another way to learn about the types of foods they ate is to look for evidence of the food remains that are charred onto or have seeped into unglazed ceramic vessels that were once used to hold and cook foods. In order to do this we have to collect the samples very specifically. First, we have to dig carefully in order to see the pieces of pottery while they are still in the dirt, making sure not to move them. Then, we have to clean our trowels so that they don’t have any oils from our hands or dirt on them (we don’t want the oils/fats from our hands, our lunch, or from other parts of the site to get on them).Finally we carefully remove the piece of pottery with our clean trowel, making sure not to touch it, and we place it with some of the dirt that was around it into an acid free envelope.

Washing trowel before taking lipid sample

Washing trowel before taking lipid sample

The envelope is labeled, in pencil, with all the information we need to know exactly where it came from on the site. These samples will then be sent off to Dr. Eleanora Reber at the University of North Carolina Wilmington Pottery Residue Lab to look for evidence of lipids (or fats that are in plants, animals and fish) in both the pottery and the surrounding dirt. We look at the fats in the surrounding dirt because they may seep into the pottery overtime. By looking at what is in the dirt we can make sure that what is in the pottery is actually from the foods they ate and not just from the dirt it sat in once it was broken and thrown out.

Lipid samples in acid free envelopes.

Lipid samples in acid free envelopes

Lipid research is not commonly done in the Southeast, but is gaining attraction in the last few years. We have used it with great success and hope more researchers begin to do these studies also. The Lord Ashley site allows us the unique opportunity to look at the interactions with food between three cultural groups – Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans. We have already learned a lot about the foods that were eaten at the Lord Ashley site, but there are many more questions to answer. We’ve been collecting samples from this month’s excavations and we hope to learn more about the foods that were grown and eaten at the Lord Ashley site. Maybe if we recover the kinds of foods that the Native Americans, African, and Europeans ate here we can see how diets changed throughout the colonial era by comparing lipid studies from other sites as well. 


About nicoleisenbarger

Hello! I am an Anthropologist who has been doing Historical Archaeology in the Southeast for over 15 years. My interests include the African Diaspora, Colonoware pottery studies, early Colonial studies, and healthy living. I enjoy working out, cooking healthy foods, reading, music, traveling, and spending time with my husband and my cat Crystal (a.k.a. my personal assistant as she is normally in my lap or by my side).
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