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

Reporting period: 2019-04-01 to 2020-09-30

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 43 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. When the project finishes in 2021 we will have unveiled 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.
Our PLANTCULT research does not only generate new knowledge about past plant foods or new methodologies to analyse them. The project moves beyond archaeological inquiry and connects the culinary past to a lively modern culinary landscape, interacting with the general public and the food production sector, especially Small and Medium Enterprises as well as ordinary people still cooking traditional recipes under threat of extinction. Our research focuses on a very important aspect of human culture: food. We eat to have energy, we also eat, however, to celebrate, to commemorate, to remember people no longer with us. Food acts like a 'glue' that connects people. Searching among the archaeological finds of foods we are searching the roots of what has led to our modern culinary landscapes. Our research highlights how some foods we have identified in the archaeological record still persist on our tables today. In this way the past becomes the present. In times where the prevailing trend is a 'fast food' cuisine, our research promotes foods with roots in prehistoric times, foods with the dynamic to continue in future generations due to their special nutritional qualities.
In PLANTCULT we are very much interested in communicating 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.
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. Experimental grinding tools, pots and hearths have been constructed based on prototypes found at archaeological sites of southeastern Europe. With this equipment we have managed to produce different kinds of flours and observe how productive these ancient tools were. These flours we have used to generate experimental breads 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. Our next step is to compare the archaeological food remains to those we have produced. This will help us formulate a methodology that will be used by other scientists to analyse ancient food remains. It will also help us understand the recipes that were used to prepare the plant foods we have found at archaeological sites of prehistoric Europe.
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.