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Move over Pompeii - British Museum does fine dining Roman Britain style in new display
The Great Dish from the Mildenhall treasure: Roman Britain, 4th century AD. Found in Mildenhall, Suffolk. Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum.

LONDON.- The Mildenhall Treasure is Britain’s finest late Roman silver dining service, and the Great Dish is its magnificent centrepiece. Dating to the fourth century, it is an enormous disc of pure silver, over 60cm in diameter and over 8kg in weight. It shows a Bacchic revel, the god of wine and his entourage drinking, dancing and generally making merry, and is a masterpiece of Roman craftsmanship. Found in 1942 by a farmer whilst ploughing near Mildenhall in Suffolk, the treasure came to the Museum in 1946 and is considered to be one of the most impressive hoards ever recovered from British soil. This unique display is to accompany a new publication of ‘The Mildenhall Treasure’ by curator Richard Hobbs.

The display will see a late Roman dining room recreated as a means of demonstrating the Roman habit of eating whilst reclining on a couch, with the Great Dish providing an example of the type of large platter on which food for sharing would have been presented.

This image of Romans reclining whilst eating is well-known in the popular psyche; a beautiful fresco can currently be seen in the Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum for example which shows guests at a banquet reclining on couches. What is perhaps not so well known is that the couches on which Romans reclined changed over the course of the Roman Empire. In the first century AD, the preference was for three couches to be arranged in a ‘U’ shape or triclinium - a number of examples are still visible in stone at well-preserved Roman towns such as Pompeii. But by the fourth century AD, a semi-circular couch, known as a stibadium, became more common. This is important because it suggests that dining became less formal; whereas the position where one reclined in the triclinium arrangement was strictly controlled, with the host and guest of honour having designated places, the stibadium was more inclusive, giving diners greater opportunity to converse with the whole party - just as today round dinner tables are better for shared conversations than rectangular ones. This suggests that the pastime of eating became more about enjoying the entire dining experience, and the atmosphere of convivial friendship, rather than worrying about your social status because of where you’d been allowed to rest your elbow.

The fact that the Great Dish was found in Britain suggests that there were some wealthy individuals who indeed reclined on a curved couch whilst they enjoyed a range of fine foods, but the question as to where in Britain such a vessel would have been used requires more imagination. This display will consider the fact that although examples of curved couches have been preserved in other parts of the Empire, none have yet been discovered in Britain. Some rural Roman villas have rooms with curved extensions – an example can be seen at Lullingstone in Kent – and these were almost certainly built to accommodate curved couches, as do the shape of some floor mosaics.

These discoveries will be brought together in this impressive display to demonstrate how the Roman custom of reclining on a curved couch to dine was just as true in Roman Britain as it was in the rest of the Empire – truly ‘Romanisation’ in action.

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