Wyrtig

For gardeners with a sense of history
 

OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants;
On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312
.

  

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Reconstructed fortress at Vindolanda, photo by B. Cresswell, Wikimedia Commons

Roman Vindolanda
 

Vindolanda was a Roman fortress located in northeast England, beside Hadrian's wall near modern Bardon Mill. Dating to around 122 CE, it was home to auxiliary infantry and cavalry, eventually sheltering the Fourth Cohort of Gauls. A small civilian settlement grew up around the fortress, and this vicus lasted until about 420 CE.  

The thin, postcard-sized wooden tablets found at Vindolanda, with letters, inventories, and reports written on them in black ink, offer an intimate look at the life of this Roman military establishment. Their messages were written by scribes, military leaders, wives and family members, ordinary soldiers, and slaves. While many of the tablets are too badly damaged to provide much information, a few have survived relatively intact. To view them all, visit Vindolanda Tablets Online.

Vindolanda Tablet 191, photo by M. Wal, Wikimedia Commons
Vindolanda tablet 191

Some of these tablets are requests for -- or inventories of -- supplies, and these tell us something about the edible plants and plant products familiar to this army. Quantities were often specified; a modius equals about 2.3 gallons; a sextarius, 1.4 cups.

  • Grains were important, especially wheat (frumenti) and barley (hordea). Other wheat products that appear in the notes on the tablets include halica, emmer wheat prepared as grits or as a drink made from grits.

  • "Celtic beer," ceruesia, appears several times, and we are even told the name of one ceruesarius, or brewer: Alectus. For British Celts, the grain used for brewing was called bracis, which was barley or perhaps emmer wheat. Beer was both a beverage and an important source of nutrition. The hypocaust heating systems introduced in Romano-British villas were later used as malting ovens to make beer. During the malting process the maltster, or braciarius, allowed grain to germinate, then gently heated it to stop germination.

From the Vindolanda tablets:

 

...fabae frensaem (odios) duos

    bruised beans, two modii...


pullos uiginti
    chickens, 20


mala si potes formonsa inuenire centum
    apples, if you are able
    to find well-formed
    ones, 100
 

oua centum aut ducenta si ibi aequo emantur ...

    eggs, 100 or 200, if found at a fair
    price

 

[ ]rio mulsi si ebr[]mus

     honied wine sauce

 

... modium oliuae...

    a modius of olives ...

 

Tablet 302

  • Wine (uini) and wine dregs, faeces, (used as cream of tartar), also appeared frequently. Aceto -- which literally  means "sour," and was either vinegar or sour wine, was a popular item, and what appears to be a kitchen inventory lists acetabula, small vinegar saucers.

  • One letter asks for apples: ...mala...formonsa, apples, well-formed; this is the only fruit named on a tablet. Other tablets mention olive oil -- eoli, olei -- as well as olives themselves, oliuae.

  • Faba (beans), fabae frensae (ground beans) and lentis (lentils) appear, as well as radixesradishes.

  • Seasonings were clearly important, and these appear as condimenti, alliatum (garlic sauce), condit[or] (pickling or preserving liquid), sal (salt), piper (long pepper), and ligust (lovage). Sweetening was provided by mellis, honey.

The menu, as seen through the narrow lens of these tablets, is surprisingly limited. But the tablets are primarily concerned with imported foods, and with foods purchased with cash, rather than foods grown locally or obtained through barter, and perhaps this explains the narrow range of foodstuffs named. A list of all the foods mentioned on tablets 118-573 is provided here; this list included:

Apples

Barley

Beans, ground

Beer

Dregs of wine (used as cream of tartar)

Emmer (brewing wheat)

Garlic sauce

Honey

Honied wine sauce

Lentils

Long pepper, Piper longum

Lovage

Olive oil

Olives

Radishes

Salt

Spices

Vinegar or sour wine

Wheat

Wheat porridge

Wine


Sources

Romano-British gardens

Abbey Farm Villa

Bancroft Villa

Camulodunum

Darenth Villa

Fishbourne Roman Palace

Frocester Court Villa and its plants

Gorhambury Villa

Latimer Villa

Vindolanda and its foodstuffs

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Roman villa plants

Romano-British villa plants

 

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Botanists are among those who know that, in spite of the rude shocks of life,
it is well to have lived, and to have seen the everlasting beauty of the world.
F.D. Drewitt

 

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