Local school students make ‘Roman bread’ based on ancient grains found on our excavation

Breadmakers Emma and Iona with Sands school pupils
Breadmakers Emma and Iona with Sands school pupils

As we have discovered ancient grains of wheat, barley and oats at Ipplepen (see our earlier ‘Cereals’ post), we decided to try to make our own ‘Roman’ bread in a secondary school workshop last week.

Breadmaker Emma Parkin (from Emma’s Bread, Exeter), archaeologist Danielle Wootton and students from Sands School in Ashburton, Devon, spent an afternoon making Roman bread in an experimental archaeology workshop. Our aim was to replicate a loaf of bread discovered in an oven at Pompeii, whilst using flours made from similar grains to the ancient grains we have discovered at the Ipplepen excavation.

We used wholemeal wheat flour and spelt flour and then added a sourdough starter (the starter was made by Emma the night before). This was all mixed together, kneaded and then left to rise for about an hour in the sun.  The dough was then kneaded into shape. It was then stamped using clay stamps made by Sands School students. Next, string was tied around the centre. (Roman bread is characteristically ‘pinched’ inwards around the centre, and we think this was achieved by tying string around it). We wondered whether the ‘pinching’ around the centre may have helped it to bake more easily in the middle. Also, by using the same length of string, the breadmaker could ensure the loaves were all about the same size. The string, with a loop tied at the end, was possibly used for carrying or hanging the bread when it had been baked. We could imagine many loaves of bread being carried by their strings on poles back to a busy household- much easier than trying to carry it all under your arms.

The bread was then baked in an oven at a very high temperature for around 40 minutes (the Romans would have used a wood-fired oven, much like wood-fired pizza ovens today). 

This was our first attempt- there’s always room for improvement – but we think our bread looks quite a lot like the Roman loaf from Pompeii. It tasted great too! Whilst the bread was quite heavy (we used wholemeal flour and didn’t use yeast to make it rise- only the traditional sourdough starter) we decided it would have been very filling and was probably healthier as there were no preservatives or added sugar. The Sands School students then took their bread into a workshop at Ipplepen Primary School.. details of which will follow in a later post.

Why was the bread stamped? 

The stamps in the bread could be used as an ‘advertisement’ for the breadmaker- much like a maker’s mark on various products today. Also, not everyone had their own oven, so people would make the dough and ask the local baker to bake it for them. Stamping bread with your own mark would help you find your bread amongst all the other loaves in the baker’s oven. Our clay stamps worked quite well- we think we will apply a bit of oil to the stamp next time to see if it makes the impression clearer.  Local breadmaker Emma is now intrigued with how bread (and breadstamps) were made in ancient times (watch this space…).

12 school pupils directly participated in making the bread and other students (school total 70) came to watch our progress throughout the afternoon and to try the bread at the end of the day.

Members of public invited to excavation Open Day on Saturday 25th June 2016, 10.30am – 3.30pm

Members of the public are invited to join us at our Open Day on Saturday 25th June from 10.30am to 3.30pm.

There will be guided tours of the excavation- your chance to see archaeology close-up, as well as history related stalls and re-enactment groups who will be bringing the site to life with ‘living history’ displays.

Iron Age group Dumnonika, and Roman groups the the Vicus and Isca Romans will be on hand for people to see what life was life was like at the site around 2000 years ago. University of Exeter students will give guided tours of the excavation and reveal our latest findings from the 2016 fieldwork. Refreshments will also be available. All welcome! Further details will be published on this blog nearer the time.

In 2015 we had a fantastic open day with 930 visitors who provided great feedback such as: ‘Three generations of our family – grandparents in their 60s, daughter 40ish and two granddaughters aged 10 and 7 – went to the exhibition and Open Day at the Ipplepen excavation last Summer and enjoyed a really wonderful time. It inspired the youngest to choose her experience as the basis for her school project. This is what Rowan (age 7) wrote about the day for her class Roman project, which she decided to do about Roman roads :
“Last summer I visited a newly discovered Roman road near Ipplepen in Devon. We were given a tour of the site and I spotted a piece of Roman pottery in the ground. (Rowan was excited to have the first eyes to notice this in more than 1500 years). They had an extra field where you buy food and they set up Roman stalls and did a Roman re-enactment. ”
Her mother Sam adds: “I would like to say it was one of our most enjoyable days of the summer. Really interesting insight into the archaeological work and finds, and the display in Ipplepen village hall was great. The day was lovely, with food and entertainment and stalls and lovely people doing really interesting tours.
Thank you – please do it again!”
”And the grandparents had a marvellous time learning more about the Romans and Roman civilisation in Devon, especially from the friendly people staffing the exhibition in the Hub at Ipplepen Methodist Church and running the tours of the site.
It was a delight to watch our family become enthusiasts for archaeology.’

Thankyou Rowan and family- we look forward to seeing you again this year, and look forward to welcoming everyone to the open day. See you all on June 25th!

Residents invited to join Exeter archaeologists in unearthing Devon’s past.

Applications are now welcome for the 2016 Ipplepen field season (from Monday 6th June to Friday 1st July). Participants must enjoy working outdoors in all weathers and must commit to spending a week at the site. To apply, email danielle.c.wootton@exeter.ac.uk by 9am on Monday, 16 May with a covering letter of no more than 200 words explaining why you would like to be considered and stating a preference for weeks 1, 2 or 3. Participants with previous experience are encouraged to apply for week 4.