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An innovative approach for the study of culinary practices in past societies

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - CUISINE (An innovative approach for the study of culinary practices in past societies)

Reporting period: 2017-05-01 to 2019-04-30

The aim of the CUISINE project was to develop an innovative methodology for the study of culinary practices (cuisine) in past societies integrating the morphological analysis of cooking pots, the analysis of their fat content (lipids) and the analysis of microscopic plant remains (phytoliths and starch grains). In order to interpret the archaeological record, extensive plant reference collections and several experiments were developed as part of the project. At the same time, the methods developed during the experimentation phase were applied to two archaeological case studies in the Aegean, an area that has historically been (and still is) a crossroad for people and foodstuffs: the Neolithic site of Stavroupoli (Greek Macedonia, ca. 5600-5000 cal. BC) and the Bronze Age site of Knossos-Gypsades (Minoan Crete, ca. 1700-1100 cal. BC). The development of these integrated analyses on Neolithic and Bronze Age settlements allowed for the study of the emergence of new social practices and cultural identities linked to the origins of food production and the development of urban societies.
The dissemination of the project began at the 17th IWGP Conference (Paris, France, July 2016), where the project rationale was presented to the international archaeobotanical community. The project was further presented to fellow researchers in Oxford in two seminars organised at the School of Archaeology in June 2017 and to a wider audience during a symposium in Hania (Crete) in July 2017.

Modern plants were collected in the Park for the Preservation of Flora and Fauna (Technical University of Crete) and the Botanical Park and Gardens of Crete in July 2017, and processed in Oxford in August 2017. The analysis of the microscopic plant remains evidenced the presence of diagnostic starch grains and/or phytoliths in several of the analysed plants. These results were presented to the international archaeological community during the 24th EAA Annual Meeting (Barcelona, Spain, September 2018) and the 18th IWGP Conference (Lecce, Italy, June 2019). A paper discussing the potential of phytoliths to identify Cretan date palm (Phoenix theophrasti) in the archaeological and palaeoecological record was submitted to the Journal of Ethnobiology (to be published shortly). A further paper discussing starch grains from food plants mentioned in Linear B texts will be submitted to Vegetation History and Archaeobotany in late 2019 as part of a special issue of the 18th IWGP Conference.

Cooking experiments were conducted in Paliambela (northern Greece) in October 2017 using modern replica vessels produced by Mr. Yannis Staggidis, an experienced traditional potter who imitated the technological and morphological traits of northern Greek Neolithic cooking pots and frying pans. These replica vessels were used to carry out a series of cooking experiments to study a) the preservation of microbotanical remains when cooked with different vessels and cooking conditions, b) the spatial distribution of microbotanical remains in pottery vessels and c) the relative occurrence of microbotanical remains after successive cooking experiments. The results of this aspect of the project were presented during the 24th EAA Annual Meeting (Barcelona, Spain, September 2018) and the 2019 IMAA Workshop (Reading, UK, February 2019), and in a seminar organised at the School of Archaeology in June 2019. These results will be submitted to Archaeometry in early 2020.

Farther laboratory experiments were carried out with subsamples of the replica vessels to develop a method to recover lipids and microbotanical remains from a single sample and in a single procedure. Conventionally, these proxies are seldom analysed as part of the same study, and when analysed they come from different vessels, thus impeding an effective integration of the results. The experiments aimed at designing a procedure in which all proxies can be independently extracted from a single vessel and, ideally, from a single original sample. After encouraging preliminary work, the second stage of this aspect of the project is still in progress through collaborations with Dr Alessandra Pecci (University of Barcelona) and Dr Thibaut Devièse (University of Oxford).

Archaeological cooking vessels from Stavroupoli and Knossos-Gypsades were sampled in Thessaloniki (northern Greece) and Knossos (Crete) in May 2017 and October 2018, respectively, and processed and analysed in Oxford throughout the duration of the project. A pilot microbotanical study of 17 cooking pots from Stavroupoli showed its inhabitants consumed domestic wheat(s) and lentils, as well as weeds and wild plants. These results were published in Quaternary International in 2018 and presented to the international archaeobotanical community during the 18th IWGP Conference (Lecce, Italy, June 2019). The analysis of 20 additional cooking vessels stressed the mixed domestic-wild nature of plant cooking practices at Neolithic Stavroupoli. We are currently seeking to conduct chemical analyses on the same cooking vessels in collaboration with the BioArch Laboratory, University of York in order to obtain a more nuanced picture of past cooking practices.

At Knossos-Gypsades, a pilot study of 24 Minoan vessels (including 13 tripod cooking pots) from a potsherd midden showed that its cooking vessels were used to process domestic cereals and non-staple plants (possibly added as condiments). These results were submitted for publication to the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory (currently under review) and presented during the 24th EAA Annual Meeting (Barcelona, Spain, September 2018) and the 18th IWGP Conference (Lecce, Italy, June 2019). Further microbotanical analyses from cooking pots recovered from other areas of the site confirmed the trends observed in the midden, suggesting that food-related practices were analogous throughout the site and not restricted to a particular context/event. Lipid analyses on these cooking pots will be conducted in the near future to complement the existing microbotanical evidence.
The project is highly innovative both theoretically and methodologically. From a theoretical perspective, it brings plants into the picture on the basis of full-spectrum residue analyses from archaeological pottery. Plants and animals are often cooked (and consumed) together. However, the analysis of lipids absorbed in archaeological pottery appears to favour animal ingredients when studying past culinary practices, whereas the identification of cereals and pulses, which likely formed the basis of the human diet from the Neolithic onwards, has proved to be more elusive. Thus, the combination of techniques/approaches proposed in this project eliminates the methodological bias that has overemphasised the role of meat products and by-products on prehistoric cuisine. Furthermore, earlier archaeobotanical and zooarchaeological research in Greece has provided the list of foodstuffs consumed by prehistoric communities. However, macrobotanical and faunal remains are seldom associated with the artefact in which they were cooked, and therefore we knew the list of foodstuffs but not what ingredients were cooked together, how were they cooked, etc. By focusing on remains recovered from the actual cooking utensils, this project was able to explore the culinary practices of past communities.