Archaeology exposes the forbidden eating habits of a bunch of 6th century monks

Archaeological analysis of human remains can illuminate incredible truths about our ancient ancestors, revealing hidden truths about their daily lives that we wouldn't necessarily be able to find in written records. Other times, it can just be a damn tattletale.

In the 500s, Byzantine monasteries were found throughout the deserts of Africa and the Near East. The remote locations were no accident — these monks were meant to adhere to asceticism, which strictly forbade worldly pleasures and required the monks to live on little else but bread and water. One exception to the isolation of these early monasteries was St. Stephen's in Jerusalem, which afforded its monks access to temptations unknown to those of their desert-dwelling brethren.

Unfortunately, it seems the monks of St. Stephen's weren't able to withstand the temptation. The University of South Alabama's Lesley Gregoricka analyzed bone samples from 55 skeletons in the monastery. The ratios of carbon and nitrogen isotopes in the bone can be used to reconstruct a reasonable picture of the ancient monks' diets. And while some of the monks did indeed only seem to subsist on bread and water with the occasional fruits and vegetables mixed in, that wasn't exactly true of all the inhabitants of St. Stephen's.

As New Scientist reports, Many of the monks were found to have bones rich in nitrogen-15, which has to be derived from consumption of animal protein. That most likely means meat, although it's possible the monks were eating cheese or other dairy-based products. Either way, such foods would have violated the principles of asceticism. What's more, such foods were a luxury item in 6th century Jerusalem, meaning the monks almost certainly would have violated their vow of poverty just to get their hands on the food.

According to Peter Hallie of the University of Dallas, "Only fallen, weak, mad and demonic monks ate meat." So either St. Stephen's Monastery was a dumping ground for every fallen, weak, mad, and demonic monk that the other, purer Byzantine monasteries didn't want, or these monks somehow kept secret their forbidden culinary habits. In any event, it just goes to show that archaeologists can't be trusted with anybody's secrets, even if they are 1,500 years old.

Journal of Anthropological Archaeology via New Scientist. Image of Cretan monastery by Nelo Hotsuma on Flickr.