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

The aim of this two-year project (2017-19) is to develop an innovative methodology for the study of culinary practices (cuisine) in past societies integrating the morpho-typological analysis of cooking pots, the analysis of their lipid content and the analysis of microbotanical remains (phytoliths and starch grains). In order to interpret the archaeological record, extensive plant reference collections and several experiments will be developed as part of the project. At the same time, the methods developed during the experimentation phase will be 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 will allow for the study of the emergence of new social practices and cultural identities linked to the origins of food production and the development of complex, urban societies.

Experimentation is an essential part of this project in order a) to test the feasibility of the integrated analysis of microbotanical remains and lipids from cooking pottery, b) to address preservation and representativeness issues and c) to develop novel methodologies for the integrated analysis of microbotanical remains and lipids.

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 (e.g. the combination of dairy and cereals to prepare dishes such as trahanas, the use of spices to flavour up a stew, etc.). 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 will eliminate 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 know 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 will be able to explore the culinary practices of past communities.

From a methodological perspective, the recovery of lipids and microbotanical remains from a single sample and in a single procedure would greatly advance the study of past culinary practices, with huge potential implications for future integrated analyses of these complementary proxies. If successful, this novel recovery method would not require the preservation of food crust or the storage of unwashed potsherds, and potentially any archaeological sherd could be analysed, regardless of when or how it was excavated/stored.

Microbotanical remains will be extracted and analysed at the School of Archaeology, University of Oxford, and lipid analyses will be carried out in collaboration with the Hephaestus Laboratory, Kavala Institute of Technology, Greece. 

Principal investigator: Juan José García-Granero

Scientists in charge and senior collaborators: Amy Bogaard (University of Oxford), Dushka Urem-Kotsou (Democritus University of Thrace), Eleni Hatzaki (University of Cincinnati), Stavros Kotsos (Ephorate of Antiquities of Thessaloniki City)

Project collaborators: Valasia Isaakidou (University of Oxford), Evgenia Tsafou (Université Catholique de Louvain), Marianna Lymperaki (Democritus University of Thrace), Marc Càrdenas (Basque Culinary Centre), Costanza Dal Cin D'Agata (Technical University of Crete)

Project sponsor: European Commission (Marie-Skłodowska-Curie Actions 2015)


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