Digging in the Cupboards

Saturday, July 05, 2014
When archaeologist Julie Hruby, an assistant professor in Dartmouth College’s Classics Department, gave a paper on ancient Mycenaean cooking last winter at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting in Chicago, she couldn’t have imagined that the topic would go viral. The subject, said Hruby, is one that “very few archaeologists get excited about.”

Hruby looked both at how ancient Greeks cooked meat on skewers on ceramic trays, or what she calls souvlaki trays, and how they cooked flat bread on griddles . These are the kinds of m undane objects that people tend to overlook when they think about the great archaeological finds of gold, wall paintings and treasure at Troy in Turkey, Mycenae and Crete in Greece, Chichen Itza in Mexico’s Yucatan or the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.

But as historians and archaeologists research the daily life of ancient peoples, what they ate and how they cooked tells researchers as much about societies and cultures as do the gold and gems of the princes and kings.

After her research was reported by the website LiveScience, the story was picked up and Hruby, who’s taught at Dartmouth since 2012, found herself doing interviews with National Public Radio news, NPR’s show about food and cooking The Splendid Table, being written up in Archaeology magazine and on the websites of NBC News and the History Channel.

“Myceneans Invent Barbecue!” was the headline to one story, a misconception that Hruby corrects. “Actually, they borrowed it from Anatolia (in Western Turkey),” she said.

Why the story went viral is something that makes Hruby scratch her head, metaphorically. “I have no idea; it was a surprise,” she said in an interview in her office at the college.

She speculates that people are fascinated by the life of the ancient Greeks and what they ate and drank. And people are interested in food, and how cuisines develop.

In 2002 , Hruby, then a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati, began investigating material found at the Palace of Nestor at Pylos, near the west coast of the Peloponnese, the large peninsula that juts south into the Mediterranean and is separated from mainland Greece by the Gulf of Corinth.

The Mycenean civilization lasted, roughly, from 1700 B.C. to 1100 B.C., some 3,500 years ago. The Palace of Nestor was first excavated in 1939 by an American-Greek team led by famed archaeologist Carl Blegen from the University of Cincinnati. World War II halted work, but excavation resumed in the 1950s and 1960s.

In Greek myth, Nestor is one of the Argonauts who accompanies Jason on his voyages, and in Homer’s Iliad , he’s the sage older counselor who advises the young warriors on how to go to war, and recounts his own youthful exploits.

The palace was enormous. There were about 105 rooms on the ground floor and there is some evidence to suggest that there was at least another storey on top. It burned around 1180 B.C., Hruby said, leaving behind a trove of objects. Why a palace made from stone and mudbrick burned is still a mystery, but Hruby’s hypothesis is that an earthquake may have toppled it, starting a conflagration.

Hruby, who usually travels to Greece once a year to research, has been working on five rooms of the palace that contained 3.5 metric tons of eating and drinking vessels: more than 1,000 bowls, 1,000 teacups, and nearly 3,000 wine cups.

It wouldn’t have been unusual during feast days at the palace to feed around 1,000 people, Hruby said. And when she began thinking about the elaborate feasts, and the logistics of cooking for so many, that “got me to thinking about how you cook,” Hruby said.

Although fragments of cookware were found at Pylos, said Hruby, no souvlaki trays or griddles were found intact there during the excavations of the 1950s and 1960s, although complete examples were found at other sites. And it was “unclear how much they’d been in use at the time the palace was destroyed. I suspect they were in occasional rotation.”

So Hruby, then teaching at Berea College in Kentucky, enlisted one of her students, Connie Podleski, to work on replicating the trays and griddles, which would help them determine how they were used.

Hruby and Podleski followed the advice of a ceramicist who recommended a combination of American commercial clays that would replicate clays used by the Greeks. They also added siltstone picked up from roadsides, painstakingly broke it down and added it to the clay. “It was a very gritty texture,” and hard on their hands, Hruby said.

Once the griddles and souvlaki trays were made the women cooked with them, to test their hypotheses. The souvlaki tray had small indentations on the sides, probably made by a person depressing the moist clay with his fingers, that held the ends of the skewers. The question was whether the Greeks placed a heat source directly into the tray, or put the whole tray over a fire. It’s not yet clear what kind of fuel source — wood or something else — might have been used, Hruby said.

Hruby and Podleski figured out that the heat source must have been placed directly into the pan because putting the trays over a fire didn’t provide enough heat to cook the meat.

The great griddle debate centered on which side was up, the side with holes poked in it, or the side without. And what were the little holes for? The theory is that they were there to collect and disperse cooking oil, so that the flat breads didn’t stick to the griddle surface. This was borne out when Hruby and Podleski tried baking breads.

The upshot, said Hruby, is that while the Myceneans have been considered to have a less sophisticated and advanced cuisine than that of Minos on Crete, their findings “demonstrate Myceneans also had a sophisticated technology, more than they’ve been given credit for.”

Their findings also point to class differences, particularly in the case of the souvlaki grills. “Elites were cooking and eating differently from other classes,” Hruby said.

While the ancient Greeks probably didn’t rely on some staples that we do now, such as milk from cows, they had a varied diet, eating, Hruby said, deer, dogs, eggs, beef, goat, pig, sheep, fish and various fowl, although not chicken.

They also ate mollusks, cheese, honey, grape must and numerous grains including barley, wheat, lentils, millet, oats, spelt and such legumes as lentils and chick peas. The urban elites tended to have a more nutritious diet than the rural farmers.

Having spent more than 10 years on the question of cooking implements, Hruby wants to turn her attention next to a trash dump, which has, she said, “more chronological depth than a palace.”

While the publicity tends to go to those sites that produce the big, spectacular finds, a trash dump, with its layers of detritus, offers the kind of microscopic detail that breathes life into the people, puts flesh on their bones, and food and drink on their tables.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.

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