Crusader diet identified at Apollonia-Arsuf
What did Crusaders eat while in the Holy Land? Understanding the diet of ancient groups can tell us a lot about them and how they interacted with their environment and the people around them. While some common foods in Europe were also popular in the Levant, others were not, such as pork and catfish. According to a study published in the journal Tel Aviv, this was not a problem. Analyzing finds from excavations at the site of Apollonia-Arsuf north of Tel Aviv, archaeologists determined that while the Crusaders did maintain some of their European food customs, their overall diet was similar to that of the local population.
Archaeobotanical analysis of Crusader period (c. 1099–1291) sites is not very common, but the few studies that have been carried out have discovered a lot about the diet of the European knights. This is especially the case at Apollonia-Arsuf. Excavations revealed cesspits and other drainage and sewage systems filled with mineralized and carbonized plant material left behind by the Crusader inhabitants.
Analyzing the botanical remains, the team identified dozens of plant species that the Crusaders would have eaten. For the most part, these plants were the same as those eaten by the local population: cereal crops (such as wheat and barley) and legumes (such as lentils, broad beans, chickpeas, vetch, and sweet peas). The Crusaders also ate walnuts and pinenuts and used fennel and carrot seeds as spices. Interestingly, one of the most common finds were figs, which grow wild in the southern Levant and can be eaten either fresh or dried. Olives were also a very common find, and several olive oil presses were found at the site.
However, the Crusader diet did not entirely look like the local, primarily Muslim diet. Among the finds were bones of butchered pigs and a large number of grape seeds. Although there were no clear signs of wine production at the site, the grape seeds suggest that the site’s inhabitants were heavily involved in grape cultivation and almost certainly used grapes, at least in part, for wine.
The Crusaders also ate more locally accepted meats as well; indeed, meat likely made up a large portion of their diet. This included beef, sheep, gazelle, deer, and possibly donkey, camel, dogs, and cats. They also ate fish from the sea, a shift from the freshwater fish that many Europeans were more accustomed to. Interestingly, while the knights ate chicken, it was not their first choice. Chicken made up around 90 percent of animal bones found in the domestic structures of Apollonia-Arsuf, but only 30 percent of the bones found in the castle.
While the First Crusade began in 1096, the analyzed botanical finds date to the 13th century. Although the Crusaders may have initially imported much of their own food culture, they quickly adapted to the diet of the local population, needing to produce and gather their own food from what was available locally.
Perched on a picturesque sandstone cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, the site of Apollonia-Arsuf has been inhabited since the late sixth century BCE. Conquered in 1101 by King Baldwin I, the site became an important Crusader stronghold and the center of a large feudal estate. Briefly occupied by Saladin in 1187, Apollonia-Arsuf was reconquered by Richard the Lionheart on September 7, 1191, at the battle of Arsuf. The battle would prove to be one of the most important of the Third Crusade and was followed shortly by a peace treaty between Richard and Saladin. Following the battle of Arsuf, the site was reinhabited under the governance of John II of Ibelin, who rebuilt the castle and parts of the nearby town. This period of resettlement was short-lived, however, as the Mamluks successfully laid siege to the castle in 1265. After the Mamluk conquest, the site would remain uninhabited until today.
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