Cooking in times of transformation

A diachronic study of organic residues in cooking pots from Hala Sultan Tekke, Cyprus


The aim of the project is to trace changes in diet and food preparation on Cyprus at the end of the Late Bronze Age (13th–12th c. BCE). The period around 1200 BCE is characterised by major political, cultural and social upheavals. Organic residue analyses of cooking vessels, indicating their original contents, will contribute to a deeper understanding of changes in dietary patterns at Hala Sultan Tekke, which may be connected to the upheavals around 1200 BCE.

The basis of this case study is the material of the ongoing excavations at Hala Sultan Tekke, one of the most important harbour cities and trade centre of the Late Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean. Since the city was settled from c. 1550–1150 BCE, stratified material from the periods before and after 1200 BCE is available for analyses.

Cypriot cooking vessels are subject to considerable changes around 1200 BCE, both in production technique and shape: Cooking pots of Cypriot tradition are hand-made, almost globular in shape with round bottoms, and are attested through most of the Late Cypriot period until the end of the 13th century BCE (Late Cypriot/LC IIC). From 1200 BCE (LC IIIA) cooking pots are, in general, wheel-thrown. The round bottom gives way to a flat base, i.e. the new type of cooking pot could stand on a flat surface without any support. This hints at changes in hearth types, which could be confirmed in the archaeological record. The new type of cooking pot corresponds to that of Mycenaean Greece, which was in use at the same time. Another new type appearing in the LC IIIA has close parallels in the Levant: this type is also wheel-made but has an almost biconical shape with round bottom and occurs far less frequently than the Mycenaean type.

In contrast to production techniques and variations in shape it is barely known which foodstuffs where processed and how in Late Bronze Age Cyprus, since systematic analyses of organic residues of domestic pottery have not been carried out yet. Organic residue analyses will also determine whether there are patterns between shape or production technique and residues, which may hint at changes in cooking or dietary practices around 1200 BCE.

Methods

Chemical analyses of residues are amongst the most powerful methods to identify prehistoric diet. The most common types of residues are absorbed and preserved within the vessel wall. Various techniques enable the recovery, detection and characterisation of biomolecules and their decay products, which through the application of the archaeological biomarker concept can be matched to specific chemical structures and distributions in modern organisms. Amongst these, lipids are the most durable and widely occurring biomarkers in the archaeological record, and enable the identification of plant oils, terrestrial and aquatic animal fats – both carcass and dairy fats –, in addition to different kinds of resins, tars, bitumens and waxes. Furthermore, different methods of food preparation, such as frying or boiling, can be determined by sampling different parts of the same cooking vessel (e.g. rim, belly, base).

The chemical analyses are supplemented by the ongoing archaeozoological and archaeobotanical studies, which will be of importance for the interpretation of the determined biomarkers and will contribute towards a broader understanding of the dietary patterns.