Oysters: food for the common people

Archaeologists have analysed the food debris left by Elizabethan theatre-goers in London, obtaining a fascinating insight into their diet.  Sifting through fragments of nutshells, shellfish and pips at the sites of the Rose and Globe Playhouses, they discovered that the poorer spectators – the groundlings or stinkards who stood during the performances – munched oysters and hazelnuts, at the same rate that today’s cinema-goers devour popcorn.  The heaps of hazelnut shells they left behind formed a useful absorbent layer in an area that was open to the elements, known as the pit. Seated in the galleries, the more well-to-do ate crab, sturgeon, peaches and dried fruit.

What’s striking is how nutritious these Elizabethan snacks were, regardless of class, compared to what we stuff into our faces today. In fact oysters used to be plentiful around the British coast and only became an expensive luxury in the 20th century after serious overharvesting. Senior Museum of London archaeologist Julian Bowsher observes:

Oysters were in fact the staple diet of the poor, right up to the Victorian period, and certainly we find oyster shells by the thousand on nearly every archaeological site we do.

These findings are published in the book The Rose and The Globe: Playhouses of Shakespeare’s Bankside, written by archaeologists Julian Bowsher and Pat Miller.

The photograph of customers queuing for oysters in Blackpool was taken by John Gay, a German émigré who documented post-war Britain after fleeing Nazi Germany.  England Observed: John Gay is published by English Heritage

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