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University of Basel

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What did the ancient Celts eat?

(Image: Digitale Archäologie, Archäologische Bodenforschung Basel-Stadt)
(Image: Digitale Archäologie, Archäologische Bodenforschung Basel-Stadt)

Recent research by Basel archaeologists confirms that the ancient Celts who once settled on what would later become the site of the city’s gasworks (their settlement was in area now known as Basel-Gasfabrik) lived mainly on cereals such as barley, emmer and free-threshing wheat. Parts of the population also ate millet. Beef, pork, mutton, goat meat and dairy products played a minor role in everyone’s diet, and chicken, eggs, salmon and dog meat were occasional additions.

These are the results of analyses that researchers at the Integrative Prehistory and Archaeological Science (IPAS) and the Department of Ancient Civilizations of the University of Basel, along with German colleagues, performed on excavation finds from the ancient Celtic settlement, which existed on the bank of the river Rhine roughly from 150 to 80 BC.

The research was undertaken together with the Archäologische Bodenforschung Basel-Stadt as part of a Sinergia project funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). The researchers examined human skeletal remains from the two associated burial grounds and isolated skulls and bones found in the settlement itself. The Iron Age settlers’ food habits were reconstructed based on carbon and nitrogen isotope analyses of 90 people, 48 animals and seven grain samples as well as zooarchaeological and paleoethnobotanical analyses. No significant differences were found between men’s and women’s diets. Children were breastfed until the age of eighteen months to four years.

The researchers saw hardly any evidence of dietary lifestyles restricted to particular groups. Also, unlike some Celtic finds from the same period, no correlation was found between food habits and particular burial practices or contexts. Further studies are planned to investigate the social mechanisms behind the complex burial customs at the Basel-Gasfabrik site.

More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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