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Identifying the food cultures of ancient Europe: an interdisciplinary investigation of plant ingredients, culinary transformation and evolution through time

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - PLANTCULT (Identifying the food cultures of ancient Europe: an interdisciplinary investigation of plant ingredients, culinary transformation and evolution through time)

Reporting period: 2020-10-01 to 2022-03-31

How were plants cooked in prehistoric Europe? Can we learn the ingredients and recipes behind food remains as old as 7000 years or more, found at archaeological sites? Did the prehistoric inhabitants of Europe share the same plant foods or were there differences from place to place? Did they have similar ways to grind and cook plants prehistory? What can we learn from shared foods and culinary differences about prehistoric culinary technologies and identities in a large part of Europe from the Aegean to Central Europe? Does prehistoric cuisine change over time and why? What are the perceptions about plant foods after 7000 years of farming in the Aegean according to ancient Greek writers? Can we trace ongoing traditions, regional differences and changed preferences in the plant foods of prehistory in our study area?
PLANTCULT addresses all these questions and using ancient plant food ingredients and actual plant foods, attempts an insight of prehistoric cuisine in Europe, from the Aegean to Central Europe, spanning the 7th-1st millennia B.C. At the same time the project has collected available published evidence on plant food ingredients, plant foods, grinding tools, cooking pots and cooking installations in order to a) offer a comprehensive approach to prehistoric culinary practice and b) make available a large body of data to the scientific community via the project's data-bases.
PLANTCULT is contributing significant new data on ancient plant foods, bringing together finds from nearly 50 archaeological sites from Greece, Bulgaria, Austria, southern Germany and Switzerland. It is also developing a solid methodology that will be used in archaeology for the study of ancient plant foods.The project's aim is to unveil several culinary secrets of prehistoric Europe: a panorama of breads, porridges or other cereal based-foodstuffs, alcoholic beverages, medicinal plants and condiments, natural sweeteners and the ways these were prepared and consumed will be made available.
The PLANTCULT project moves beyond archaeological inquiry and connects the culinary past to a lively modern culinary landscapes and consumers. ,
In PLANTCULT we have been very much involved in outreach activities and events with the ultimate goal to communicate our research to the modern consumer, educate young people about traditional foods rooted in prehistory and learn from the old generation recipes thus safeguarding them for future generations.
Our project has placed great emphasis on outreach activities such as cooking events, videos, exhibitions and conferences. The aims of future research are to integrate the PlantCult knowledge of past and traditional plant food culinary practices with future policies in the agri-food sector and education
Throughout the project we have studied plant food preparation from the Aegean to Central Europe through a wide range of archaeological remains that included archaeobotanical remains, processing tools, cooking pots and cooking installations. We have approached these archaeological remains using a combination of analytical techniques such as Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM), organic residue analysis (ORA), GIS, tribology for usewear analysis, archaeobotany of plant micro and macro remains, including charcoal, phytolith and starch analysis. In addition to the archaeological lines of inquiry, PlantCult attempted for the first time the diachronic examination of plant foods, combining archaeological and textual evidence that offered complementary lines of evidence and unique insights of past choices of plant food ingredients and their change over time. More than 50 archaeological sites have been investigated with a special focus and emphasis on the archaeobotanical remains from nearly 50 sites from Greece, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Austria and Southern Germany as well as on the relevant technologies for their culinary transformation. The investigation of the plant food components and their culinary transformation spanned the the first seven millennia of farming communities in a large part of Europe.
A wide array of observations regarding overall plant food preferences and their change through time can be found in the PlantCult books that include an edited volume (Cooking with Plants in Ancient Europe and Beyond by Valamoti, Dimoula, Ntinou (eds) 2022, Sidestone Press), a food authored by the PI and project team members (Food Crops of Ancient Greece, Valamoti, Fyntikoglou, Symponis, 2022, University Studio Press) and a booked authored by the PI on Plant Foods of Greece: a Culinary Exploration of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages (2023, University of Alabama Press, Archaeology of Food Series). These books also offer insights to food preparation technologies such as grinding, pounding, cooking and baking. Issues related to the symbolic and ritual aspects of plant foods and their participation to processes of constructing culinary identities have also been explored by the project.
Regional overviews have been generated by PlantCult for grinding tools, cooking pots and installations, in most cases focusing primarily in Greece, with the available data organized in the PlantCult DataBases, openly accessible through this link:
The PLANTCULT team has worked very hard to obtain, record, photograph and analyse hundreds of archaeological food specimens from Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age sites from the Aegean to Central Europe. Food remains that could correspond to breads, porridges, pre-cooked ground cereals, malt and ground malt, split and soaked pulse seeds, pressed grapes, dried fruit have been carefully analysed. Ancient texts have been investigated in order to learn how prehistoric plant foods were perceived and cooked in the historic periods 1st millennium B.C. We have also observed how traditional foods like bulgur, trahanas, Gruenkern, grape syrup and fava are produced in order to better understand ancient food preparations. Experimentaly generated grinding tools, pots and hearths led to the prearation of experimental beads and gruels. We have also generated ethnographic and experimental foods using Lathyrus sativus, einkorn wheat and acorns. All these have been charred in order to resemble archaeological food remains and they have been compared to the archaeological food remains. This has formed the basis to produce methodological tools of a wider applicability that enables the distinction of different plant food preparations. A key for distinguishing different types of cereal fragments has been compiled and another one for distinguisihing porridges, doughs and breads is under construction. All this PlantCult generated data is available through the PlantCult PAFdb, openly accessible from early 2024.
Databases on ancient cuisine are underway: plant foods, cooking pots, grinding tools, cooking facilities, ancient texts.
A solid methodology to identify ancient plant food preparations like gruels, porridges, breads, ground cereals, split pulses, alcoholic beverages is being developed.
A solid methodology to explore the origins of arboriculture in the study area is being developed. An overview of culinary practices and their changes through time, from the Aegean to Central Europe in Prehistoric and early Historic times will be generated. PLANTCULT results will form the basis for a recipe book thus communicating the project's results to the wider public.
PI Soultana Maria Valamoti, proudly showing her first experimental breads