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Rackham Centennial Lecture - On the Menu at the Graveside: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Funerary Offerings in the Cemeteries of Leptiminus

Thursday, October 18, 2012
12:00 AM
Kelsey Museum, 434 South State St., Ann Arbor

Textual sources, inscriptions, and ancient images all indicate that dining and food offerings for the dead were an important element in funerals and commemoration. These discussions are usually unspecific about “menus,” however, and archaeological evidence of actual food remains has often been sparser still. Thus, during recent excavations (2004-2006) at the East Cemetery of Leptiminus (Lamta, Tunisia), an important focus of the project was to collect physical evidence of food remains, namely bones, seeds, and residues. Finds related to food preparation and certain architectural features (particularly libation tubes and offering tables) provide further insight.  

Analysis of results indicates change over time and a regional signature to the types of offerings. Cremations (2nd and 3rd c. C.E.) were fuelled by cones and wood from pine trees, which are associated with immortality and the god Saturn. Ceramic libation tubes contained
residues showing that oily substances were inserted after burial directly into the vessels holding the cremated remains. Inhumation graves (3rd-5th c. C.E.) yielded less direct evidence for food offered during interment, though there is evidence for food preparation outside the tomb. Food vessels and lamps suggest continued dining in the Christian catacombs (4th-5th c. C.E.).

Begun in 1990 as a joint initiative of the University of Michigan and the Institut National du Patrimoine in Tunisia, the Leptiminus Archaeological Project has conducted fieldwork for two decades (with the archaeological permit transferred to the University of Manitoba in 1995). The international and interdisciplinary team has investigated many aspects of the ancient city, publishing three monographs and numerous articles. More than 25 Michigan graduate students have participated in the Leptiminus project, gaining field training and contributing to publications; two former students, Lea Stirling and David Stone, co-directed the project from 1995 on. A short “epilogue” will muse on student training and the Michigan legacy.

Lea Stirling, University of Manitoba