Oysters - the Tudor version of cinema popcorn

LONDON Fri Jan 29, 2010 9:28am EST

Oysters are presented by oyster farms near Bordeaux, August 21, 2009. REUTERS/Olivier Pon

Oysters are presented by oyster farms near Bordeaux, August 21, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Olivier Pon

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Elizabethan theater-goers chomped on an exotic array of foods while enjoying the latest plays of the day, new evidence found at the sites of Shakespearean playhouses in London suggests.

Archaeologists say choice Tudor snacks included oysters by the cartload, crab and other shellfish like mussels, whelks and periwinkles.

Dried raisins and figs, hazelnuts, plums, cherries and peaches were also consumed in great quantities, according to experts who excavated The Rose and The Globe theatres on the south bank of the River Thames.

Baked blackberry and elderberry pies and sturgeon, common in British waters at the time, were also popular with the masses who packed the playhouses.

New published research also suggests that the theater diet varied along social and class lines.

Commoners, referred to then as "groundlings or stinkards" who paid just a penny to stand in the yard or pit regularly chomped on oysters.

"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," said senior Museum of London archaeologist Julian Bowsher who excavated the two theater sites.

The gentrified classes, who paid more to sit on cushions in the galleries, were more likely to have munched on crab and sturgeon, he said. Sturgeon may well have been slightly more expensive than other fish at the time.

"Underneath the gallery seating, we found fragments of crab which could also have been more costly," he told Reuters.

There is evidence the better-off could also afford to snack on imported foods like peaches and dried fruits.

Museum of London Archaeology has published the findings in a book of the excavations, which began in 1988, called: "The Rose and the Globe: Playhouses of Shakespeare's Bankside, Southwark."

Authored by Bowsher and fellow archaeologist Pat Miller, it contains decades of research on all aspects of the playhouses from superstructure to dress accessories of the classes who attended.

The Rose was originally built in 1587 as a 14-sided polygon where many of Christopher Marlowe's plays, including "Doctor Faustus" and "The Jew of Malta," were first performed.

The Globe, home to many of Shakespeare's plays, was first built in 1599 by the Bard's playing company, burned down in 1613, was rebuilt in 1614 and, like all other London theatres, was closed down by the Puritans in 1642.

A modern reconstruction was opened in 1997.

(Editing by Steve Addison)

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