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Feeding Asceticism: The Archaeology of Byzantine Monastic Kitchens

Darlene Brooks Hedstrom, Wittenberg University, Summer Fellow 2015–2016

My work documented and analyzed the archaeological remains of built cooking spaces in early Byzantine monasteries in the Eastern Mediterranean. Drawing upon theoretical models from household archaeology and materiality, I examined the designs and constructions of monastic kitchens to reconstruct how the spaces convey the history of monastic life defined by the centrality of meal production in communal and private kitchens. Previous studies of Byzantine feasting and fasting have greatly enhanced the story of monastic eating habits, while the use of microarchaeology at many excavation projects highlights the story that can be told from the evidence of seeds, pollen, and ceramic cooking wares. I assembled a large corpus of monastic sites from Egypt, Gaza, Judea, and Syria with kitchen installations. The sites differ significantly in their construction materials, but each helps explain how ingredients were combined to make meals. Egyptian monastic sites offer an impressive range of ovens, fire-pits, and braziers. The Egyptian material complements stone oil and wine presses, mills, and refectories found at Judean and Gazan monasteries. Together the sites complement the information from Byzantine legal treatises, cookbooks, literary texts, and visual representations of cooking. I benefited from using the impressive ICFA archives to study early twentieth-century images of monastic kitchens and food preparation from expeditions to Egypt, Israel, and Syria. This ethnographic evidence and an extensive catalogue of archaeological sites provided substantial material for drafting a book prospectus and a chapter on what constitutes a “kitchen” when looking at archaeological evidence in Byzantine monasteries.