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‘Archaeology is rooting around between the artefact and the person’

‘Archeologists don’t dig up explanations, let alone certainties,’ says Joanita Vroom, Professor of Archaeology of Medieval and Early Modern Eurasia. ‘Their job is to bridge the gap between the sherds that they find and people’s everyday lives. What do ceramics from the past say about people’s eating habits at the time, and vice versa?’ Inaugural lecture on 12 April.

Joanita Vroom: 'In archaeology the theories and models are always clashing with reality.'
Joanita Vroom: 'In archaeology the theories and models are always clashing with reality.'

Vroom doesn’t beat about the bush: archaeology tries to find arguments that fill the gap between excavated objects and the everyday lives of people in the past. Time and again there is a clash between the reality of a sherd or bone fragment and the theory presented in models and concepts. New insights are arrived at a bit at a time.

Purslane salad

In her inaugural speech, Vroom looks at the relationship between ceramics and eating habits in the period around 1438. In that year, Emperor John VIII of the declining Byzantine Empire ate a purslane salad with Giovanni di Jacopo di Latino de Pigli in Tuscany. We know this because Giovanni was so impressed that he wrote down exactly how the vegetable was prepared by the Emperor himself.

Opposite direction

With the example of the salad, the new professor is taking a rather unusual direction for archaeologists, namely from person to sherd. The record of the salad being eaten leads to archaeological material from that period. She starts by asking: ‘What did the Emperor eat his salad from? A bowl or a dish? Plates hadn’t made an appearance yet. Probably a small bowl because communal eating was no longer customary at court in those days.

Emperor John VIII may well have eaten his salad from a Sgraffito pottery dish.

What exactly did the Emperor eat his salad from?

And was the bowl made of wood, metal or glazed earthenware? Vroom believes the latter to be most probable, ‘Because decorated and glazed tableware, such as Sgraffito pottery that has designs scratched into it, was popular in the higher echelons of Byzantine society at the time.’ The Emperor may have brought such a bowl with him. Alternatively, he may have brought along a valuable piece of Chinese Ming porcelain because archaeological finds have shown that this porcelain was being exported from China to the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century already.

Adventure

Vroom analyses big databases of ceramic finds from a large area and long period of time, and identifies gradual shifts in the production, distribution and use of objects, and how certain types and forms fall out of favour. This gives her an idea of changes in people’s lifestyles. In her inaugural lecture, she takes a well-documented event and leads her audience on an adventure through centuries of development in sovereignty, trade and food culture, with cameo appearances by the Byzantines, the Ottomans, the North Europeans and the Chinese. ‘Just for the fun of it,’ she says.

Text: Corine Hendriks
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