Archaeology exposes the forbidden eating habits of a bunch of 6th century monks

Illustration for article titled Archaeology exposes the forbidden eating habits of a bunch of 6th century monks

Archaeological analysis of human remains can illuminate incredible truths about our ancient ancestors, revealing hidden truths about their daily lives that we wouldn't necessarily be able to find in written records. Other times, it can just be a damn tattletale.


In the 500s, Byzantine monasteries were found throughout the deserts of Africa and the Near East. The remote locations were no accident — these monks were meant to adhere to asceticism, which strictly forbade worldly pleasures and required the monks to live on little else but bread and water. One exception to the isolation of these early monasteries was St. Stephen's in Jerusalem, which afforded its monks access to temptations unknown to those of their desert-dwelling brethren.

Unfortunately, it seems the monks of St. Stephen's weren't able to withstand the temptation. The University of South Alabama's Lesley Gregoricka analyzed bone samples from 55 skeletons in the monastery. The ratios of carbon and nitrogen isotopes in the bone can be used to reconstruct a reasonable picture of the ancient monks' diets. And while some of the monks did indeed only seem to subsist on bread and water with the occasional fruits and vegetables mixed in, that wasn't exactly true of all the inhabitants of St. Stephen's.

As New Scientist reports, Many of the monks were found to have bones rich in nitrogen-15, which has to be derived from consumption of animal protein. That most likely means meat, although it's possible the monks were eating cheese or other dairy-based products. Either way, such foods would have violated the principles of asceticism. What's more, such foods were a luxury item in 6th century Jerusalem, meaning the monks almost certainly would have violated their vow of poverty just to get their hands on the food.

According to Peter Hallie of the University of Dallas, "Only fallen, weak, mad and demonic monks ate meat." So either St. Stephen's Monastery was a dumping ground for every fallen, weak, mad, and demonic monk that the other, purer Byzantine monasteries didn't want, or these monks somehow kept secret their forbidden culinary habits. In any event, it just goes to show that archaeologists can't be trusted with anybody's secrets, even if they are 1,500 years old.

Journal of Anthropological Archaeology via New Scientist. Image of Cretan monastery by Nelo Hotsuma on Flickr.



Well lets see.

Mr. Hatlie seems to be quite credible and studied in near east religion and culture. He is quoted as supporting the author's opinions, but there is not much context for the quote. My lesser studies of early Christianity suggests there was a very wide range of purpose and style in early monastic life. Though life was nearly universally simple because of deliberate isolation from the dangers of a crumbling empire, I have never read anything that said there was a uniform code of diet. In the New Testament, Timothy 4:3 (1-5) declares that forbidding to eat meat is false doctrine.

So let's look at Mr.Wilkins. A very nice appearing work of journalism. Nice un-captioned picture of what? So I checked (just a little) into St Stephens monastery in East Jerusaleum. Sponsored by the Byzantine Empress Eudocia... couldn't ask for better. According to one article, by the end of the sixth century the monastery housed over 10,000 monks. Pretty big "dumping ground". Probably not typical for early monasteries. Probably hard to keep "secret" the habits of 10,000 monks or the supplies of any kind they required. I wonder if "meat" includes goats, sheep, pigs, chicken, fish? Beef was indeed much too valuable for other uses in those days to be raised for the slaughter, maybe even by an empress.

So let's look some more at Mr Wilkins.

Quick Google search leads to his twitter site. His own commentary of himself along with some Simpson cartoons: "Write TV reviews for @AVTVClub and Morning Spoilers for @io9, with a little science mixed in for laughs."

Here is the opening sentence from his Bio on the page: "Alasdair Wilkins is a reporter at io9. He mostly specializes in science pieces, some of which are even accurate."

I'll get my analysis from a more credible source if I want more than a little accuracy. I appreciate that the article made it to my archaeological news page for the amazing tech in determining diet from long dead bones. I didn't appreciate any of Mr. Wilkins demeaning remarks however.