A Stable Isotope Analysis Study for Dietary Reconstruction at the Multi-Period Site of Mesembria (Nesebar) on the Black Sea
Diet in historic populations has traditionally been reconstructed using ancient literary sources and artistic depictions and the focus has often been on elite banquets and religious restrictions surrounding food. According to these sources the diet from Classical times through to the Medieval period was centred around a ‘Mediterranean triad’ of grain, oil and wine, with the wealthy gaining access to a more varied diet, including meat and fish, and the men often getting preferential access to certain foods. It was also suggested that with the transition to Christianity, the fasting rules resulted in a change of diet towards a vegan diet or with the replacement of meat with fish, as meat was associated with sinfulness. Stable isotope analysis provides a more reliable means of determining what people were actually eating, and the study of dental pathology supplies useful supporting evidence as the teeth can be directly affected by the foods that are being consumed. The isotopic results indicate a predominantly C3 terrestrial diet, as would be provided by the aforementioned triad of foods, primarily in the form of bread, but also including a significant terrestrial animal component, either in the form of meat, eggs or dairy, and a significant and variable marine element. The dental evidence demonstrated high levels of both caries and calculus, in accordance with this diet high in both carbohydrates and proteins. There was little difference in diet over time, although the Byzantine-Medieval period had elevated isotopic values indicating a slight increase in marine food consumption, presumably due to Christian fasting rules, as well as improvements in fishing technologies and food preservation techniques. The small Byzantine cemetery demonstrated elevated isotopic values and worse dental health compared to the main multi-period cemetery demonstrating a diet with increased proportions of seafood and cariogenic foods, possibly in the form of sweeteners such as dates and honey, and indicating a degree of exclusivity about the individuals buried there. There were no significant differences in diet identified between the sexes, age groups or burial types. These results and dietary reconstruction are comparable to those from similar sites that have undergone stable isotope analysis, including other Greek colonies and coastal Byzantine sites, indicating a general ‘Mediterranean diet’ over time and space.