Fossilized remnants from a 1,100-year-old refuse pit recently discovered near Jerusalem’s Old City provide a veritable smorgasbord of culinary delights. According to well-preserved seeds, bones and other refuse, ancient city dwellers feasted on beef, fish and fowl, with sides of veggies and lentils. And for dessert? How about cake, or a fruit salad of figs, grapes and black mulberries.
The fossilized refuse provides physical evidence of the urban diet of the Early Islamic period in Israel. Also on the menu, said Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists, were eggs, fish, different possibly medicinal grasses — and the first proof of locally grown eggplant.
“Just like we bake a cake and throw the egg shells into the garbage, that’s exactly the form in which we found the eggs. We have scales and jaws of fish and small rodents,” said archaeologist Oriya Amichay in a press release. (The rodents were presumably not served.)
The refuse pit was uncovered in an IAA excavation, in collaboration with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and funded by the City of David Foundation, on the terraced Second Temple Period Pilgrimage Road in the City of David.
Uniquely, the organic remains were discovered in a fossil-like state: Their organic elements became mineral, preserving their shape and color, in a little-known process which the archaeologists are currently “intensely studying.”
“The grape seeds look as if they just came out of the grape,” said IAA excavation director Nahshon Szanton in conversation with The Times of Israel on Thursday. While it is too early to know if the researchers will discover any DNA remnants, he said, it would be a great boon to science if they do.
“In Israel, organic finds are usually preserved if they become carbonized as the result of a fire or when the site is in an area where weather conditions delay the breakdown of the material,” said IAA archaeologists Szanton and Amichay in an IAA release.
“In contrast to these types of preservation, the botanical finds in the refuse pit on the stepped street in the City of David, like material found in refuse pits discovered in the past in excavations at the nearby Givati Parking Lot, were preserved in a unique way: The components of the seeds underwent a mineral process that rendered them inorganic – their outer form did not change and the seeds did not decompose, but rather were preserved in the pit until they were recovered during the excavation,” they said.
The preserved pits and seeds give insight into the economy, trade and agriculture during the Abbasid caliphate, which ruled the region during what is arguably the Golden Age of Islam. Among the vessels discovered in the garbage dump was an ancient lamp bearing the inscription “baracha” or blessing, in Arabic. The pit’s contents are still being researched by Amichay and Szanton for the Israel Antiquities Authority, in cooperation with Bar-Ilan University’s Archaeobotany Laboratory, headed by Prof. Ehud Weiss, who will publish their findings in the future.
The most surprising remnant of organic material are well-preserved eggplant seeds, the oldest known domestic evidence of the fruit in Israel. Szanton was not aware of a tradition of Jews eating eggplant, nor is there evidence in any literature he is familiar with. (Interestingly, the word for eggplant in Hebrew, hatzil, was adapted from Arabic in the rebirth of Modern Hebrew and has only been in use for the past 100 years.)
Szanton said that the refuse pit is a “treasure trove” for the research on the economy, trade, and agriculture of the region. The eggplant seeds are an example that illustrates the increased globalization of the trade routes. Their origin is in India or Sri Lanka, he said, but it is assumed that they arrived in Iran during the Persian conquest of those nations circa 518 BCE.
The Abbasid Caliphate, which ruled from 750 CE, employed Persian bureaucrats in ruling its empire, and Persian customs — and presumably food — took root throughout the region. Szanton assumes that the eggplant was initially imported — perhaps preserved — and was then cultivated locally.
According to Amichay, whose master’s thesis was written on similar refuse pits, the trove of thousands of grape seeds could indicate some sort of industrial activity involving grapes.
“Wine may have been produced here, or, more likely, grape honey (dibes). We know that with the Muslim conquest grape honey production became more prevalent in the area while wine production declined due to the Muslim religious ban on alcoholic beverages,” she said.
Szanton added that since the grape seeds are whole, and not squashed as they often are during the process of creating the must or pulp of the grapes, “it could that this is evidence that they were not used in wine making.”
Szanton told The Times of Israel that while it is understood that all three monotheistic religions lived in Jerusalem during this time period, “we still don’t know exactly who ate what.” He said that it is possible that after further examination of the animal bones, including cattle, fowl and fish, that will become more clear.