Project

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

Goal: The project seeks to explore culinary practice among early farming European communities, from the Aegean to Central Europe, spanning the Neolithic through to the Iron Age (7th-1st millennia BC). The project seeks to identify the ‘food cultures’ of prehistoric Europe, and to reconstruct how cultivated and wild plant foods were transformed into dishes exploring their underlying cultural and environmental contexts and their evolution through time. The project will explore how culinary identities were shaped through the selection of plant foods both in terms of ingredients as well as processing and cooking practices. Thus not only species and meals but also the equipment involved in plant food preparation will be considered for the study area, linking the end product to the relevant technologies of transformation. Macroscopic and microscopic examination of the archaeological finds and experimental replication of various aspects of food preparation techniques informed by ethnographic investigations will form the main analytical tools. The interdisciplinary and contextual examination of the archaeological record will provide a fresh insight into prehistoric cuisine in Europe, the transformation of nature to culture through cooking. The project will revolutionise perceptions of prehistoric food preparation providing insights for the ‘longue durée’ of traditional plant foods constituting Europe’s intangible cultural heritage.

Date: 1 April 2016 - 31 March 2021

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Andreas G. Heiss
added 12 research items
Remains of ancient dishes can contribute significantly to the knowledge of past dietary habits, adding cuisine as the “missing link” between crop and consumption. Charred and fragmented archaeological remains of processed cereal preparations, while long having been neglected as a find category, bear large potential for analysis just as entire archaeological “bread loaves” do. The submitted work aims at providing a set of methods suitable for the analysis and interpretation of such finds. After the introduction to the theoretical framework of the research questions, basic processes in food transformation are laid out with a particular focus on their consequences for the raw material’s tissue and cell structures. Likewise, major factors affecting the deposition, preservation, and recovery of cereal-based foodstuffs are discussed, particularly highlighting the destructive potential of flotation. The historical overview of the field of ancient bread research together with its consecutive chapter gives an evaluation of previous analytical approaches and a methodological “state of the art” as suggested by the applicant, pointing out possibilities and limitations encountered in the identification and quantification of ingredients and in the observation of possible traces of food transformation processes. The thesis concludes with highlighting possible strategies for finding answers to the initial questions by giving suggestions for modelling chaînes opératoires of archaeological food remains, and for the construction of comprehensive typologies within this complex find category.
The paper discusses possible evidence for cereal food from seven Bulgarian archaeological sites spanning the Early Neolithic to the Early Iron Age (6th millennium BC – 1st millennium BC). It aims to increase the awareness of excavators towards such finds and to present the methods for collecting and extracting such remains from archaeological layers and their laboratory analysis. The studied remains are mainly cereal fragments, agglomerations of fragments or amorphous/ porous masses with or without visible plant tissues. They were directly collected from vessel contents or derived by means of flotation from bulk samples taken from floor layers close to fireplaces/ cooking installations. The microscopic structure of the food remains is observed and described at plant tissue level under low magnification binocular, microscope with reflected light and Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM). These optical examinations were applied in order to detect alterations of the microstructure of the possible food remains and hence to trace the possible ways of food preparation. All the cereal food remains from the Neolithic/Chalcolithic period represent coarsely ground cereals, while the later ones (Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age) have characteristics of finely ground cereal products and may suggest the introduction of new cooking/ baking techniques as well as shifts in food processing practices. Based on their field experience and research results the authors strongly recommend careful sampling and documentation of any charred crusts recognisable as such in vessel contents, and deposits around installations like ovens and fireplaces, which could be related to daily food preparation or ritual offerings. Such systematic study of archaeological food remains will facilitate obtaining reliable information about food preparation and consumption in the past.
Andreas G. Heiss
added a research item
Inventory no. 3544. Late Neolithic charred bread-like object from Upper Austria. Cereal product from the lakeshore settlement Station "see", Lake Mondsee, dated to the Late Neolithic (mid-3rd millennium BCE). Excavated in 1872 under the direction of Matthäus Much, first documented and analysed by Elise Hofmann in 1924. Property of the University of Vienna, Study Collection of the Department of Prehistory and Historical Archaeology. Analyses carried out within the framework of the ERC Project PLANTCULT (Grant Agreement No. 682529, Consolidator Grant 2016-2021, PI Soultana Maria Valamoti). Pictures taken with Canon 5DS R. Model processed with Autodesk Recap360 cloud service.
Andreas G. Heiss
added 3 research items
Find no. 45/43-28 from burnt layer AH2. Late Neolithic charred bread-like object from Baden-Württemberg (Germany). Cereal product from the lakeshore settlement Hornstaad Hörnle IA, Lake Constance, dated to the Late Neolithic (early 3rd millennium BCE). Excavated in 1987 under the direction of Bode Dieckmann, and first documented by Ursula Maier in 2001. Property of the Landesamt für Denkmalpflege Baden-Württemberg. Analyses carried out within the framework of the ERC Project PLANTCULT (Grant Agreement No. 682529, Consolidator Grant 2016-2021, PI Soultana Maria Valamoti). Pictures taken with Canon 5DS R. Model processed with Autodesk Recap360 cloud service.
Find no. Si10 538/127-1054 from burnt layer 2.9.2. Late Neolithic charred bread-like object from Baden-Württemberg (Germany). Cereal product from the lakeshore settlement Sipplingen Osthafen, Lake Constance, dated to the Late Neolithic (early 3rd millennium BCE). Excavated in 2010 under the direction of Helmut Schlichtherle. Property of the Landesamt für Denkmalpflege Baden-Württemberg. Analyses carried out within the framework of the ERC Project PLANTCULT (Grant Agreement No. 682529, Consolidator Grant 2016-2021, PI Soultana Maria Valamoti). Pictures taken with Canon 5DS R. Model processed with Autodesk Recap360 cloud service.
The detection of direct archaeological remains of alcoholic beverages and their production is still a challenge to archaeological science, as most of the markers known up to now are either not durable or diagnostic enough to be used as secure proof. The current study addresses this question by experimental work reproducing the malting processes and subsequent charring of the resulting products under laboratory conditions in order to simulate their preservation (by charring) in archaeological contexts and to explore the preservation of microstructural alterations of the cereal grains. The experimentally germinated and charred grains showed clearly degraded (thinned) aleurone cell walls. The histological alterations of the cereal grains were observed and quantified using reflected light and scanning electron microscopy and supported using morphometric and statistical analyses. In order to verify the experimental observations of histological alterations, amorphous charred objects (ACO) containing cereal remains originating from five archaeological sites dating to the 4th millennium BCE were considered: two sites were archaeologically recognisable brewing installations from Predynastic Egypt, while the three broadly contemporary central European lakeshore settlements lack specific contexts for their cereal-based food remains. The aleurone cell wall thinning known from food technological research and observed in our own experimental material was indeed also recorded in the archaeological finds. The Egyptian materials derive from beer production with certainty, supported by ample contextual and artefactual data. The Neolithic lakeshore settlement finds currently represent the oldest traces of malting in central Europe, while a bowl-shaped bread-like object from Hornstaad–Hörnle possibly even points towards early beer production in central Europe. One major further implication of our study is that the cell wall breakdown in the grain’s aleurone layer can be used as a general marker for malting processes with relevance to a wide range of charred archaeological finds of cereal products.
Andreas G. Heiss
added 2 research items
Different ways have been used by human societies to transform cereals into food: gruels, porridges, soups, breads, alcoholic beverages are examples of the rich variability observed in ancient and modern culinary practice. Our presentation explores the possible ways in which cereals could have been consumed in antiquity, integrating ancient written sources and experimental preparations generated in the context of ERC project PLANTCULT. A detailed examination of ancient Greek texts has revealed a wealth of cereal food preparations and contexts of consumption. This, combined with archaeobotanical knowledge on cereal food preparations from Greece has formed the basis for the preparation of a selection of experimental cereal-based processed products, mainly breads and porridges. These have been analysed using scanning electron and optical microscopy, calorimetry, rheometry and mechanical analysis; they form the basis for comparisons to a selection of archaeological, cereal based food remains from Greece and southern Italy. Our approach aims to contribute towards a better understanding of the transformation of cereal ingredients into food products in the context of past culinary practice.
Within the scope of ERC Project PLANTCULT we organized an international workshop “Ancient beer: multidisciplinary approaches for its identification in the archaeological record” at the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart. At the IWGP, we want to present a summary and the results of the discussions during this workshop. Traditionally, malt finds in combination with special installations, features and finds indicating beer production and consumption are considered as hints/proof for ancient beer brewing (e.g. Bronze Age Archondiko Giannitson in Greece, Iron Age Eberdingen-Hochdorf in south-western Germany and Roquepertuse in France). Beer has been known as the drink of the big civilisations of the Near East, Sumerians and Egyptians, with many artefactual, pictorial and textual evidence confirming the widespread practice of beer making, both as a staple and a ritual drink. As we have seen both in Egypt (Predynastic Tell el-Farkha and Hierakonpolis as well as New Kingdom Amarna) and in Mesopotamia (Bronze Age Tall Bazi in Syria), we have to cross-check artefactual, pictorial and textual evidence with archaeobotanical macro- and micro-remains (e.g. Neolithic Can Sadurní Cave in Spain, Early Iron Age Heuneburg in Germany and Mont Lassois in France) to fully understand the production of ancient beer. Especially residue analysis of ceramic vessels is a line of evidence which methodology is still being developed and controversies often arise over the methods used for the detection of beer. Using the background of historical and craft beer brewing methods together with macro-remain and residue analyses as well as contextual information we can try to reconstruct past brewing processes and the taste of ancient beer.
Marian Berihuete Azorín
added a research item
Charring is the most common preservation state of plant remains retrieved at archaeological sites. Therefore, archaeobotanists have often performed charring experiments mainly aimed to produce comparative materials and to better understand the various processes affecting the morphology and composition of archaeobotanical assemblages. In this paper, and based on previous works, we develop a laboratory protocol which standardizes the charring process and proposes how to perform charring experiments with a step-by-step description of the methodology. Our observations have focused on ripe Triticum spelta, a species seldom approached by former experiments, both in its ripe and unripe and roasted form, known as Grünkern. We explore the parameters that affect the production of comparative material which preserves the features closest to the non-charred individuals both as regards overall shape and external morphology but also as regards the effects of charring on the internal morphology of the cereal grains examined with the aid of Scanning Electron Microscopy. Based on our own experience and on which information we missed when performing our experiments, we describe here the work that we carried out with the aims of exploring the effects of charring on cereal grain structure, but simultaneously of providing a protocol useful for charring experiments, needed for the standardization of similar work. This standardization is needed in order to achieve meaningful comparisons of results when producing charred material. Being applicable to other experiments and laboratories, it will enable in the future a more reliable exploration and interpretation of ancient cereal foods.
Andreas G. Heiss
added a research item
Cereals, in addition to being a major ingredient in daily meals, also play a role in the preparation of foodstuffs for ritual purposes. This paper deals with finds that may correspond to such ritual preparations retrieved from the hillfort site of Stillfried an der March. The site, spreading across an area of ca. 23 ha, held a very important position among settlements of Late Urnfield period (particularly during the 10th– 9th c. BCE), acting as a central place where large scale storage of grain as well as textile and metal production took place under the control of local elites. Three incomplete ring-shaped charred organic objects, found together with 14 rings and ring fragments made of clay were discovered in a secondary filled silo pit, excavated among a total of about 100 pits of this kind at the site. The overall good state of preservation of the organic ring fragments suggests that they were deposited intact on the bottom of the pit and covered well so that no re-deposition or damage occurred. This could be indicate their intentional placement in this position. Light and scanning electron microscopy revealed that the charred organic rings are cereal products containing hulled barley and a wheat species. Indications that the objects were shaped from a wet cereal mixture and had been subsequently dried without baking are discussed, as well as the possible significance of the find assemblage. The annular objects are put in context with the contemporary cereal spectrum as well as other cereal preparations from Stillfried, outlining their different chaînes opératoires for handling cereal food.
Andreas G. Heiss
added a research item
This paper addresses for the first time a large body of archaeobotanical data from prehistoric Southeastern Europe, mostly published for the first time, that correspond to cereal food preparations. The evidence presented here comes from 20 sites situated in Greece and Bulgaria, spanning the Early Neolithic through to the Iron Age (7th millennium B.C.-1st millennium B.C.). The remains correspond to cereal fragments or agglomerations of fragments that resulted from ancient food preparation steps such as grinding, boiling, sprouting/malting, mixing in bread-like or porridge-like foodstuffs. The article builds on previous pilot studies and with the aid of stereomicroscopy and scanning electron microscopy offers a first classification and possible interpretations of the finds leading to the recipes that might have generated them. At the same time the article highlights the significance of retrieving and studying in depth such rare archaeobotanical finds, points out the interpretative problems stemming from such material and suggests ways forward to address similar archaeological finds in different parts of the world. The paper demonstrates the potential of the systematic study of cereal-based food remains, in our case prehistoric Southeastern Europe, to reveal a wide variability in cereal food transformation practices, suggestive of the interplay between available ingredients, cultural traditions and the complex interaction between society and environment.
Andreas G. Heiss
added a research item
Plant foods have sustained human populations for millennia across the globe. Project PLANTCULT: Investigating the Food Cultures of Ancient Europe, funded by the European Research Council aims to investigate plant ingredients, plant foods and their culinary transformation and change through time. Through an interdisciplinary investigation of plant foods and the associated technologies used to transform them into food the project seeks to identify food cultures, defined on the basis of culinary practices rather than other aspects of past human activity. Food preparation transforms nature into culture in a constant interplay, therefore the investigation of past cuisines requires an integration of various lines of evidence such as ingredients, fuel, stone and clay. Food preparation results in a suit of traces left in the archaeological record, detectable through the use of sophisticated analytical techniques: a) archaeobotanical analysis of plant macro-remains such as charcoal and seeds/fruits and of plant micro-remains such as starches and phytoliths, b) technological analysis of cooking equipment (pots and cooking installations) including thin sections, c) macroscopic and microscopic analyses of grinding stone-tools. Project PLANTCULT uses archaeological evidence from prehistoric sites spreading from the Aegean to Central Europe, inhabited between the 7th and 1st millennia B.C. By applying various analytical techniques to all the above lines of evidence, the project investigates how cuisines of prehistoric Europe evolved through time. To this end, experimental replication and input from ethnography offer a better understanding of the culinary processes of prehistoric times. Our paper presents our integrative methodological approach and some first results from selected key sites from the study area, whereby plant food preparations are revealed through a combined xamination of ingredients and associated food transformation technologies. Acknowledgements: This project has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme (Grant Agreement No 682529, consolidator grant 2016–2021
Andreas G. Heiss
added a research item
This paper discusses the distribution of archaeobotanical remains of Olea europaea (olive) across space and through time in mainland Greece and the Aegean from Neolithic to Hellenistic times (7th millennium-1st century bc) in order to explore the history of olive use in the study area. Olive stones and olive charcoal retrieved from prehistoric and historic sites on mainland Greece and the islands offer the basis for a discussion of the context and processes involved in the introduction of olive cultivation to the study area. The olive was nearly absent for most of the Neolithic and only appears in the southern parts of mainland Greece and the islands towards the end of the period. From the Early Bronze Age onwards it becomes increasingly visible in the archaeobotanical record. A possible cause for the introduction and increased presence of the olive during the Bronze Age could have been for oil production for elite use and trade. From the Bronze Age palaces of the 2nd millennium bc to the Hellenistic kingdoms towards the end of the 1st millennium bc, the olive thrived and was introduced northwards to new terrain, more marginal for olive growing than the warm lands of southern Greece. This introduction of olives to the northern Aegean region could be attributed to Greek colonisation and the increase in later times to a gradually increasing need for olive oil, perhaps associated with the emergence of new lifestyles, such as training in gymnasia.
Andreas G. Heiss
added 2 research items
This paper revisits and old question “Beer or wine?” as regards the potential alcoholic drinks consumed by prehistoric societies in southeastern Europe. Archaeobotanical remains of sprouted cereal grains as well as cereal fragments from the Bronze Age sites of Archondiko and Argissa on mainland Greece, presented here for the first time, provide strong indications for the making of something similar to beer in late 3rd millennium bc Greece, opening up a series of new questions about the recipes followed in this process and their origins. Beyond the recipes themselves, the paper highlights a range of available options as regards alcoholic drinks in Bronze Age Greece, beer and wine, offering thus a more detailed approach to preferences and possible identities reflected in the choice of alcoholic drink among prehistoric societies inhabiting the southernmost tip of the Balkan Peninsula, the Aegean and mainland Greece.
Well-preserved finds of sacrificial cakes from the Sanctuary of Demeter at Monte Papalucio (Oria, southern Italy, VI-III cent. B.C.) are among the most famous bread-like remains from the ancient Mediterranean region. These unusual finds represent direct and rare evidence of the food products offered as part of religious practice by the indigenous (Messapian people) inside a particular ‘place of encounter’, a place of worship closely related to the south Italian colonial Greek world (Magna Graecia). This paper offers for the first time a detailed analysis of the internal structure of these bread-like remains using Environmental Scanning Electron Microscope and Image Analysis in order to detect plant-based ingredients and the techniques employed in the production and cooking processes. Moreover, considering the cultural context, the sacrificial cakes from Oria Sanctuary offer a rare opportunity to directly compare the ‘cake’ finds and ancient written Greek sources, allowing for a deeper understanding of the chaînes opératoires of cereal processing in the past as well as the perception and role of these products among the ancient societies of the region. The contribution presents and discusses the results of these analyses and offers valuable, integrated information hidden inside the ancient cakes. A better understanding of the reciprocal influences and possible divergences between native and Greek culture is achieved by taking into consideration ancient Greek tradition on bread and cakes in sacred contexts and the interplay.
Andreas G. Heiss
added 5 research items
Particle measurements of find no. 2907. Raw data of the histogram in Figs 15 and 17. (XLSX)
Cavity measurements of find no. 2285. Raw data of the histogram in Figs 14 and 18. (XLSX)
Andreas G. Heiss
added a research item
Plant foods are closely connected to cultural, social and economic aspects of human societies, both past and present. Food-preparation techniques and the etiquette of consumption involve complex interactions of natural resources and human cultures. During European prehistory, these changes included the shift to sedentism, the cultivation and domestication of plants, food storage, the production and exchange of alcoholic beverages and luxury foodstuffs, and the continuous adaptation of established culinary practices to newcomers in fields and gardens.
Andreas G. Heiss
added a research item
The site of Parkhaus Opéra is located on the north-eastern shore of Lake Zürich (Switzerland) and was documented during a rescue excavation in 2010 and 2011 by the Office for Urbanism, City of Zürich. Two charred bread-like objects were found in late Neolithic Layer 13 of the pile-dwelling, and are investigated using a novel set of analyses for cereal-based foodstuffs. Tissue remains of barley and wheat were identified, as well as a schizocarp of celery (cf. Apium graveolens), providing the first evidence for the use of bread condiments in the Neolithic. Cereal particle sizes were recorded and used to draw conclusions regarding milling and sieving of the raw material. Gas bubbles in the charred objects were measured in order to evaluate possible leavening of the dough. The outcomes of this research significantly advance the understanding of the production traits of cereal-based food during the Neolithic. The analytical techniques proposed by this study open up new possibilities for systematic and consistent investigations of cereal-based archaeological foodstuffs.
Soultana Maria Valamoti
added a project goal
The project seeks to explore culinary practice among early farming European communities, from the Aegean to Central Europe, spanning the Neolithic through to the Iron Age (7th-1st millennia BC). The project seeks to identify the ‘food cultures’ of prehistoric Europe, and to reconstruct how cultivated and wild plant foods were transformed into dishes exploring their underlying cultural and environmental contexts and their evolution through time. The project will explore how culinary identities were shaped through the selection of plant foods both in terms of ingredients as well as processing and cooking practices. Thus not only species and meals but also the equipment involved in plant food preparation will be considered for the study area, linking the end product to the relevant technologies of transformation. Macroscopic and microscopic examination of the archaeological finds and experimental replication of various aspects of food preparation techniques informed by ethnographic investigations will form the main analytical tools. The interdisciplinary and contextual examination of the archaeological record will provide a fresh insight into prehistoric cuisine in Europe, the transformation of nature to culture through cooking. The project will revolutionise perceptions of prehistoric food preparation providing insights for the ‘longue durée’ of traditional plant foods constituting Europe’s intangible cultural heritage.