Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros57Berbers, Barley and Bsisa

Berbers, Barley and Bsisa

Elizabeth Fentress
p. 163-168

Résumés

L’article souligne l’importance de l’orge dans la période romaine en Afrique, en examinant un aliment contemporain spécifique, le bsisa. Ceci est fait d’orge verte, grillée, moulue et mélangée avec des épices, de l’eau et de l’huile d’olive dans une sorte de porridge. Il constituait une ressource importante pour une période de l’année où les stocks d’autres céréales risquaient d’être faibles. Le porridge est fait en frottant le grain moulu contre la paroi du bol tandis que de l’eau est ajoutée en un mince filet. Il est suggéré que la forme de sigillée claire Hayes 91, qui avait une longue série de prédécesseurs dans la céramique nord-africaine, était idéale pour la fabrication et la consommation de bsisa. L’analyse de l’usure de certains spécimens semble étayer cette conclusion.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

  • 1 E.g., Cool 2006, Arthur 2007, Biddulph 2008, and Luley 2014, the latter two making interesting eco (...)
  • 2 Rzeuska 2013.
  • 3 Fentress 2010. I am grateful to Phil Perkins, Paul Reynolds and the anonymous reviewer for their h (...)

1Speculation about what specific ancient pottery forms were used for is not uncommon1. Correlation between fabric and soot marks can also elucidate the position of cooking wares in respect to the fire2. This note is my own second attempt to play this game. In the first, I argued that the African Red Slip ware forms Hayes 196, 197 and 23 were respectively the lid, base and upper body of a bain-marie, or double boiler3. Here I want to consider the later form Hayes 91, and its function in North Africa. I argue below that the form may have had a particular association with the preparation of the barley meal known in more recent times as bsisa.

1. Barley as a Staple

  • 4 Palmer 1991, p. 264-265.
  • 5 Fuller, Pelling 2018, p. 361.
  • 6 Pelling 2013, appendix.
  • 7 Van der Veen 1995; Pelling 2013. Because of the process of toasting the barley it is not impossibl (...)
  • 8 Fuller, Pelling 2017, p. 362.
  • 9 Jalloul 1998, p. 490; Valensi 1977, p. 175.
  • 10 Ibn Hawqal 1964, p. 94-95.

2Barley was associated with the Berbers by ancient authors, usually in disparaging fashion, for Romans considered it fit only for animals. Procopius tells us that the Moors “take grain, either wheat or barley, and, without boiling it or grinding it to flour or meal, they eat it in a manner not a whit different from that of animal” (Procop., Vand., IV, vi, 13). Victor of Vita describes the distress of the 4,966 Catholics who, under Huneric, were handed over to the Moors and taken to “uninhabited” places in the desert where scorpions abounded, and where the exiles were fed on barley, not wheat (Vict. Vit. 2, 26–37). Barley is, of course, a hardy crop, more resistant to drought and salinity than wheat, and the general North-African preference for it in the Roman period is reflected in the palaeobotanical data from inland sites. At Sétif (Sitifis), for example, fifth-century contexts showed that 70% of the grain recovered was barley4. At Volubilis, the figure for the Roman period is 72%5, while at the Garamantian site of Jarma, in the Fezzan, the figure for the Roman period is 71%6. It is only after the Arab conquest that this marked preference begins to change, as is shown on fig. 1. This may be due to the introduction of the hardier durum wheat at that time. Although this was found in the Fezzan in the late first millennium B.C.7, no certain identification of durum wheat, which can only be distinguished from hordeum aestivum by its rachis, is known from Roman North Africa, although it is found at both Sétif and Volubilis in the early Middle Ages8. But even after the introduction of durum wheat, consumption of barley continued everywhere among the poorer people of North Africa, sometimes exclusively, as at Jerba and in the Sahel generally9. Ibn Ḥawqal tells us that “the barley bread made in the Jebel Nefusa can be compared to the best quality of wheat bread”10. Barley is the principal culture, and the one most commonly eaten.

Fig. 1: Grain consumption at 5 inland sites

Fig. 1: Grain consumption at 5 inland sites

Data from Palmer 1991, p. 264-5 (Sétif); López, Cantero 2016, p. 456-466 (Althiburos); Pelling 2013 (Jarma); Fuller, Pelling 2018 (Volubilis); Muller et alii 2016, p. 57-8; 65 (Rirha).

  • 11 Brugnatelli 2002, p. 1085.

3Risk management, which seems to be reflected here, is also provided by the practice of harvesting the ears of grain while they are still green. In this way the grain may be harvested at the beginning of spring, when stocks of everything else are running low. The ears are roasted before grinding to create a dense meal, high in calories, that is far easier to preserve than ordinary flour and may be carried over long distances. Like date paste, the barley meal is fundamental to long-distance caravans, but is also used by households on a daily basis, traditionally for breakfast. It goes by a variety of names: bsisa, in modern Tunisian Arabic, but also the Berber ademmin (Jerba), arkoul (Kabylie), or swik (Jebel Nefusa)11. For breakfast, the ground grain is mixed with spices such as fennel, coriander and cumin. But what is of interest here is the way in which it is prepared. A quantity of the dry meal is put into a bowl, and then water is added slowly, while the meal is crushed and rubbed against the side of the bowl with a spoon. The bowl is tipped up with the left hand, the right hand holding the spoon and rubbing it energetically against the side of the bowl. This action breaks the meal down into a thick paste that is then thinned with more water to the desired consistency; this ranges from thick to quite thin. After mixing, diners may add honey, dates, and oil or melted butter. The whole process takes about three or four minutes for a quantity large enough for a single person.

  • 12 Udevitch, Valensi 1984, p. 80.

4Among the Jews of modern Jerba, bsisa has acquired an almost sacred status. The first day of Nisan, a Jewish festival that occurs, significantly, at the beginning of spring, a plate of pre-mixed bsisa is brought to the family table, and the father pours a thin stream of olive oil over it. Each member of the family in turn puts his finger under the stream. Then, the father stirs the oil into the bsisa with a key, repeating a prayer, and the other members follow suit. Gold jewellery might be placed in the dish with any leftovers. The whole is profoundly linked to the nuclear family: houses may have a special place for the storage of bsisa, and its preparation takes place in some secrecy, while the Nisan ceremony takes place without guests12. It is not coincidental that the ceremony takes place in a period when bsisa consumption might once have become a necessity.

2. A Pottery Form for working Bsisa

  • 13 Hayes 1977; Bonifay 2004, p. 203.
  • 14 Symonds 2012, with vast previous bibliography.
  • 15 Biddulph 2008. The Gaulish sigillata mortaria forms Ritt. 12, Curle 11 were spouted at the rim, an (...)
  • 16 Treglia 2002.
  • 17 Fentress 1991, p. 194.

5In the repertoire of African Red Slip wares one form stands out, both for its easily recognized shape and its ubiquity. Hayes 91 (fig. 2, 1-2), produced from around AD 380 through the first half of the seventh century13, is a bowl with a shape very similar to that of a mortarium, with a wide flange for gripping and rouletting in the interior: in some cases the rouletting is replaced with fine grits, making it clear that the abrasive surface forms part of the function of the type (fig. 2, 3). While the mortarium, which serves for crushing and pounding food, perhaps plant products, originates as early as the seventh century BCE, its developed form, with gritting and a flange, seems to be no earlier than the first century BCE14. However, unlike the very robust mortaria found in Late Republican and Early Imperial Italy, the fine fabric of the ARS bowl makes it unsuitable for pounding with a pestle: experimental work on the much earlier Samian forms like Dragendorff 29 and 38 suggests that they may have been used for grinding spices15. The only other interpretation I have found the use of Hayes 91 suggests that it could have served as a garlic crusher, used with garlic held in the hand16. Now, in the late Roman contexts at Sétif the form comprised fully 50% of the finewares17: how many households could use that many garlic crushers? The solution that it was used to prepare something similar to bsisa seems an obvious one, the grits or rouletting providing the rough surface against which to mash the ground grain to a paste with a spoon, while the flange would be gripped with the left hand. This does not, of course, exclude its use for grinding spices such as coriander and fennel seeds, or indeed the crushing of garlic.

Fig. 2: Hayes 91

Fig. 2: Hayes 91

1-2. Hayes 91A and B (Hayes 1972, fig. 26); 3. Gritted version in local red slip, Sétif (Fentress 1991, fig. 52);

  • 18 I am deeply grateful to Viviana Cardarelli for her help in finding the Sperlonga examples held at (...)

6It is not easy to find a statistically significant number of bases with which to check the hypothesis that the form was used to create a paste by rubbing the contents against the rouletting. However examination of 30 base sherds of the form from the imperial villa of Sperlonga showed that on the 25 examples where the slip was preserved, 12 showed abrasion of the slip over the rouletting, against 13 that did not18. Particularly significant is one complete form (fig. 3). Here the slip is worn away over the rouletting and the area immediately above it, and there are pronounced scratches visible in the upper area. It may not be a coincidence that the flange is snapped off the point opposite the greatest wear, suggesting that it was used to hold the vessel while the rubbing was taking place.

Fig. 3: Dish from the imperial villa at Sperlonga

Fig. 3: Dish from the imperial villa at Sperlonga

An almost complete dish from the imperial villa at Sperlonga, held at the Università di Roma La Sapienza.

(cliché E. Fentress)

7The interpretation of use of this form for bsisa is supported by the presence of cylindrical spouts on a number of the African examples, some in the form of lions’ heads, some resembling nipples, that can be interpreted as baby feeders (fig. 2, 4). These would have been used with a more liquid version, created by thinning the initial paste.

  • 19 Bonifay 2004, commune type 8, p. 249-260.
  • 20 Fulford 1984, p. 198-203. The ARS form is unlikely to be derived from Gallic flanged finewares lik (...)
  • 21 Bonifay 2004, fig. 135; p. 136-141. Large shallow coarseware dishes with a flanged rim occur in co (...)
  • 22 Reynolds 1995, p. 353; data from Fulford 1984.
  • 23 Data from the Segermes, Kasserine and Jerba surveys, detailed in Fentress et alii 2004.

8Although Hayes 91 appears only towards the end of the fourth century A.D., it has, as Bonifay has observed, multiple forerunners in gritted or stamped coarsewares19. These occur on North African sites from the first century A.D. onwards, and continue into the sixth century20. Some are flanged bowls spouted at the rim, like the equivalent gaulish sigillata forms, while others are small, gritted mortaria for individual use, no more than 30 cm in diameter21. In turn, they may have replaced wooden versions of the same type, the new productions inspired by the Italian gritted mortaria. The coarseware variants become more and more common in late Antiquity and include examples with impressed decoration or rouletting that replaces the gritting. If we are correct in the identification of the use of the mortaria-bowls, the ubiquity of the ARS form in North Africa - it constituted fully 15% of the ARS from fifth century deposits at Carthage22 - should indicate that bsisa consumption was extremely common, perhaps serving as one of the fundamental elements in the ordinary diet. The importance of the dish, and the fact that it can be prepared by individual diners, might go some way to explaining why this very functional shape was eventually produced in a fineware, suitable for use at the table. Data from rural surveys in North Africa indicate a much lower percentage of around 5%, however, perhaps because of the availability of the form in coarseware23.

  • 24 I am grateful to Philip Perkins for this remark, based, for Italy on a database containing the ARS (...)
  • 25 Rice 2016.
  • 26 Note also their absence in the Bosphorus: Smokotina 2014.

9Its use, of course, was not limited to North Africa, and it was certainly popular elsewhere; indeed the percentage of the form in the context of ARS of similar date is around 8% in central Italy24. It is notable that among the Italian contexts we find the slave barracks at the imperial estate of Villa Magna in Lazio, where it constituted fully 17.7% of the ARS assemblage for the period during which it was produced25. The use of the bowl for a specific local African preparation hardly excludes its use for other forms of porridge elsewhere, or, perhaps a more generalized use of bsisa and other preparations from toasted meal. Other uses may have been found as the form became popular. On the other hand, Reynolds (pers. com.) observes that flanged bowls are almost entirely absent in the Eastern Mediterranean at any date26.

10The development of the form can in any case be seen as recursive, deriving perhaps from Roman gritted mortaria in Italy or their equivalent ungritted Punic forms, it proved well-adapted to the preparation of a local foodstuff in North Africa, and after several centuries in the coarseware tradition was reproduced as a fineware. The export of ARS D to the Western Mediterranean then made it a popular tableware form, perhaps again adapted to other local foods. It found no such favour in the Eastern Mediterranean, however, demonstrating that pottery consumption was as much a matter of choice as was food.

Haut de page

Bibliographie

Althiburos II 2016, N. Kallala, J.Sanmartí (eds.), Althiburos II. L’aire du capitole et la nécropole méridionale : études. Tarragona (Documenta 28).

Arthur P. 2007, “Pots and Boundaries. On Cultural and Economic Areas between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages”, in M. Bonifay, J.-C. Treglia (eds.), Late Roman Coarse Wares, Cooking Wares and Amphorae in the Mediterranean, Oxford (BAR Int. S. 1662), p. 15-27.
https://www.academia.edu/230260

Ben Moussa M., Revilla Calvo V. 2016, “La céramique romaine : contextes, répertoires et typologies”, in Althiburos II 2016, p. 141-242.
https://www.academia.edu/31645158

Biddulph E. 2008, “Form and Function: the Experimental Use of Roman Samian Ware Cups”, OJA 27, 1, p. 91-100.
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1468-0092.2007.00298.x

Big Data 2018, P. Allison, M. Pitts, S. Colley (eds), Big Data on the Roman Table: New Approaches to Tablewares in the Roman World = Internet archaeology 50.
https://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue50/index.html

Brugnatelli V. 2002, “Elementi per uno studio dell’alimentazione nelle regioni berbere”, in D. Silvestri, A. Marra, I. Pinto (eds.), Saperi e sapori mediterranei. La cultura dell’alimentazione e i suoi riflessi linguistici, Atti del Convegno Internazionale, Napoli, 13-16 ottobre 1999, III, Napoli (Quaderni di AIΩN n.s. 3), p. 1067-1089.
https://www.academia.edu/1054523

Cool, H.E.M. 2006, Eating and Drinking in Roman Britain, Cambridge.

Dannell, G.B., 2018, “The Uses of South Gaulish Terra Sigillata on the Roman Table. A Study of Nomenclature and Vessel Function”, Internet Archaeology 50
https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.50.5

Fentress E. 1991, “La céramique”, in Fouilles de Sétif 1991, p. 181-204.

Fentress, E. 2010, “Cooking Pots and cooking Practice: An African bain-marie?”, PBSR 78, 2010, p. 145-150.
https://www.academia.edu/37890565/Cooking_pots_and_cooking_practice_an_African_bain_marie

Fentress etalii 2004, Fentress E., Fontana S., Hitchner R.B., Perkins P., “Accounting for ARS: Fineware and Sites in Sicily and Africa”, in S. Alcock, J. Cherry (eds.), Side by Side Survey. Comparative Regional Studies in the Mediterranean World, Oxford, p. 147-162.

Fouilles de Sétif 1991, E. Fentress (ed.), Fouilles de Sétif 1977-1984, Alger, (5e suppl. au BAA).

Fulford, M. 1984, “The Red-Slipped Wares,” in M. Fulford, D.P.S. Peacock (eds.) Excavations at Carthage. The British Mission, I, 2. The Avenue du President Habib Bourguiba, Salammbö. The Pottery and other Ceramic Objects from the Site, Sheffield, p. 48-114.

Fuller D., Pelling R. 2018, “Plant Economy: Archaeobotanical Studies”, in E. Fentress, H. Limane (eds.), Volubilis après Rome. Les fouilles UCL/INSAP, 2000-2005, Leiden, p. 349-368.
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329471632_Plant_Economy_Archaeobotanical_Studies_Les_fouilles_2000-2005

Hayes J.W. 1977, “North African Flanged Bowls: A Problem in Fifth-Century Chronology”, in J. Dore, K. Greene (eds.), Roman Pottery Studies in Britain and beyond. Papers presented to John Gillam, July 1977, Oxford (BAR Int. S. 30), p. 279-288.

Ibn Hawqal, 1964, Kitāb ṣūrat al-ar (Configuration de la terre), Introduction et traduction J. H. Kramers, G. Wiet, I-II, Paris.

Jalloul, N. 1998, “Permanences antiques et mutations médiévales”, in L’Africa Romana XII 1996, p. 485-511.
http://eprints.uniss.it/6109/1/Africa_romana_12_convegno_3.pdf

López A., Cantero F.-J. 2016, “Agriculture et alimentation à partir de l’étude des restes de grains et de fruits”, in Althiburos II 2016, p. 449-490.
https://www.academia.edu/36231976

Luley B.P. 2014. “Cooking, Class, and Colonial Transformations in Roman Mediterranean France”, AJA 118, 1, p. 33-60.

Muller, S. etalii 2016, Muller S., Ruas M-P., Ivorra S., OueslatiT., “Environnement naturel et son exploitation aux époques antique et médiévale”, in L. Callegarin, M. Kbiri Alaoui, A.Ichkhakh, J.-C. Roux (eds) Rirha: Site antique et médiéval du Maroc, Madrid, p. 35-132.

Palmer, C. 1991, “Le matériel botanique”, in Fouilles de Sétif 1991, p. 460-467.

Pelling, R. 2013, “The Archaeobotanical Remains”, in D. Mattingly (ed.), The Archaeology of Fazzān, London (Society for Libyan Studies Monograph 9), p. 473-494.

Ramón J., Sanmartí J., Maraoui Telmini B. 2016, “La céramique préromaine tournée”, in Althiburos II 2016, p. 49-84.

Reynolds P. 1995, Trade in the Western Mediterranean AD 400-700. The Ceramic Evidence, Oxford (BAR Int. S. 604).

Rice C. 2016, “The African Red Slip Ware”, in E. Fentress, C. Goodson, M. Maiuro, (eds), Villa Magna. An Imperial Estate and its Legacies. Excavations 2006-10. London (Archaeological Monographs of the British School at Rome 23) p. 164-165.

Rzeuska T. 2013, “Dinner is served. Remarks on Middle Kingdom Cooking Pots from Elephantine”, in B. Bader, M.F. Ownby (eds) Functional aspects of Egyptian Ceramics in their Archaeological Context. Proceedings of a Conference held at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge, July 24th – July 25th, 2009, Leiden-Paris-Walpole Ma. (Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 217) p. 73-99.
https://www.academia.edu/9106235

Smokotina A. 2014, “The North African Red Slip Ware and Amphorae imported into Early Byzantine Bosporu”, RCRFActa 43, p. 71-80.
https://www.academia.edu/8031959

Symonds R.P. 2012, “A Brief History of the Ceramic mortarium in Antiquity”, Journal of Roman Pottery Studies 15, 2012, p. 169-214.
https://www.academia.edu/4102339

Treglia, J.-C. 2002 “Flanged bowl Hayes 91: simple bol décoré, mortier ou râpe?”, in L. Rivet, M. Sciallano (eds.), Vivre, produire et échanger : reflets méditerranéens. Mélanges offerts à Bernard Liou, Montagnac, p. 287-290.

Udovitch, A., Valensi L. 1984, Juifs en terre d’Islam. Les communautés de Djerba, Paris.
https://www.erudit.org/fr/revues/as/1987-v11-n2-as514/006428ar/

Valensi L. 1977, Fellahs tunisiens: l’économie rurale et la vie des campagnes aux 18e et 19e siècles, Paris (Civilisations e Sociétés 45).
https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k3347904b/f1.item

Van der Veen M. 1995, “Ancient Agriculture in Libya: A Review of the Evidence”, Acta Palaeobotanica 35, 1, p. 85-98.
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/27248796

Haut de page

Notes

1 E.g., Cool 2006, Arthur 2007, Biddulph 2008, and Luley 2014, the latter two making interesting economic and cultural conclusions about forms of cooking and their cultural significance. The recent project ‘Big Data on the Roman Table’ gives multiple example of the study of the function of Roman tablewares: Big Data 2018.

2 Rzeuska 2013.

3 Fentress 2010. I am grateful to Phil Perkins, Paul Reynolds and the anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments and criticisms, and to Viviana Cardarelli for her assistance in the deposits of the Università di Roma La Sapienza.

4 Palmer 1991, p. 264-265.

5 Fuller, Pelling 2018, p. 361.

6 Pelling 2013, appendix.

7 Van der Veen 1995; Pelling 2013. Because of the process of toasting the barley it is not impossible that it survives somewhat better in the archaeological record.

8 Fuller, Pelling 2017, p. 362.

9 Jalloul 1998, p. 490; Valensi 1977, p. 175.

10 Ibn Hawqal 1964, p. 94-95.

11 Brugnatelli 2002, p. 1085.

12 Udevitch, Valensi 1984, p. 80.

13 Hayes 1977; Bonifay 2004, p. 203.

14 Symonds 2012, with vast previous bibliography.

15 Biddulph 2008. The Gaulish sigillata mortaria forms Ritt. 12, Curle 11 were spouted at the rim, and may have served for mixing and pouring sauces: Dannell 2018.

16 Treglia 2002.

17 Fentress 1991, p. 194.

18 I am deeply grateful to Viviana Cardarelli for her help in finding the Sperlonga examples held at the University of Rome.

19 Bonifay 2004, commune type 8, p. 249-260.

20 Fulford 1984, p. 198-203. The ARS form is unlikely to be derived from Gallic flanged finewares like Curle 11 and 21, or Dragendorff 38, which disappeared over a century previously.

21 Bonifay 2004, fig. 135; p. 136-141. Large shallow coarseware dishes with a flanged rim occur in contexts at Althiburos of the second c. BC, and are identified as mortaria, but there appear to be no signs of gritting. Ramón, Sanmartí 2016 p. 67-8 and fig. 2.8. Small mortaria of the type discussed here only appear in the second century AD: Ben Moussa, Revilla Calvo 2016, p. 155.

22 Reynolds 1995, p. 353; data from Fulford 1984.

23 Data from the Segermes, Kasserine and Jerba surveys, detailed in Fentress et alii 2004.

24 I am grateful to Philip Perkins for this remark, based, for Italy on a database containing the ARS from the Albegna Valley Survey, the Tiber Valley Survey, the imperial villa of Sperlonga, and the Villa Magna excavations: this is the database used in Fentress et alii 2004, with the addition of the Villa Magna data. The percentages are against those of ARS in use during the period of production of Hayes 91.

25 Rice 2016.

26 Note also their absence in the Bosphorus: Smokotina 2014.

Haut de page

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1: Grain consumption at 5 inland sites
Légende Data from Palmer 1991, p. 264-5 (Sétif); López, Cantero 2016, p. 456-466 (Althiburos); Pelling 2013 (Jarma); Fuller, Pelling 2018 (Volubilis); Muller et alii 2016, p. 57-8; 65 (Rirha).
URL http://journals.openedition.org/antafr/docannexe/image/4610/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 150k
Titre Fig. 2: Hayes 91
Légende 1-2. Hayes 91A and B (Hayes 1972, fig. 26); 3. Gritted version in local red slip, Sétif (Fentress 1991, fig. 52);
URL http://journals.openedition.org/antafr/docannexe/image/4610/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 115k
Titre Fig. 3: Dish from the imperial villa at Sperlonga
Légende An almost complete dish from the imperial villa at Sperlonga, held at the Università di Roma La Sapienza.
Crédits (cliché E. Fentress)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/antafr/docannexe/image/4610/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 404k
Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Elizabeth Fentress, « Berbers, Barley and Bsisa »Antiquités africaines, 57 | 2021, 163-168.

Référence électronique

Elizabeth Fentress, « Berbers, Barley and Bsisa »Antiquités africaines [En ligne], 57 | 2021, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2021, consulté le 04 juillet 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/antafr/4610 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/antafr.4610

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Tous droits réservés

Haut de page
  • Logo Centre Camille Jullian
  • Logo Aix-Marseille Université
  • Revue soutenue par l’Institut des sciences humaines et sociales du CNRS
    CNRS - Institut national des sciences humaines et sociales
  • OpenEdition Journals
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search