BMCR 2010.10.70

Archaeology Meets Science: Biomolecular Investigations in Bronze Age Greece: The Primary Scientific Evidence, 1997-2003

, , , Archaeology Meets Science: Biomolecular Investigations in Bronze Age Greece: The Primary Scientific Evidence, 1997-2003. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2008. xxiv, 304. ISBN 9781842172384. $120.00.

This book is the companion volume to Minoans and Mycenaeans: Flavours of Their Time (Greek Ministry of Culture, 1999), a catalogue of a travelling exhibition of pottery from Bronze Age Greece showcasing the vessels and the results of scientific investigations into their contents, alongside zooarchaeological studies and stable isotope analysis of human remains. While the Minoans and Mycenaeans volume is written for a general public, Archaeology Meets Science presents, in a more technical fashion, the background to the investigations, full results, and recommendations for further investigations. The volume is divided into three main sections: 1) Organic Residue Analysis, 2) Methods and Primary Evidence for Stable Isotope Analysis, and 3) Lessons for the Future, as well as an appendix of site descriptions and a concordance with the Minoans and Mycenaeans exhibition catalogue. Of the three primary sections, Organic Residue Analysis is by far the longest, comprising 12 of the 16 papers (a full table of contents is provided at the end of this review).

The introductory chapters highlight the social nature of food, and drawing upon Mary Douglas’ metaphor of food as a language, suggest that scientific analysis can be used to identify some of the “vocabulary” of complex culinary symbolic systems. The focus, as outlined, is to build on previous work in Aegean diet based on animal and plant remains by using scientific methods to analyse the pottery vessels that contained foods and the human bodies that ate the foods. Between the time of the exhibition and the publication of this second volume, more sites were included for analysis, and thus, this volume contains articles on several more sites in Crete and the Peloponnese as well as a single more distant site in the Bay of Naples.

In the first section — Organic Residue Analysis — two articles provide a history of chemical research in archaeology and an overview of current methods and techniques. Special attention is paid here to the problem of contaminants and to techniques for the identification and exclusion of common contaminants from further analysis. The authors also provide cautionary information on the difficulties of identifying residues with a particular plant or animal, highlighting that in some cases it is better to present the data in a general matter rather than risk a false identification.

The chapters in this section are predominately data-based, presenting the specific methods used for analysis, the individual pots or sherds, and the results obtained for each. From a scientific point of view, two papers in this section are particularly interesting. The first is Victor Garner’s exploration of the use of solvent extraction as a non-destructive approach to organic residue analysis, which enables the investigation of complete vessels considered too valuable for destructive sampling. Also noteworthy is Patrick McGovern et al.’s use of three different, but complementary, methods for analysing organic materials: Diffuse-reflectance infrared Fourier-transform spectrometry (DRIFTS), high performance liquid chromatography, and Feigl chemical spot tests. The combination of these techniques provides multiple strands of evidence to investigate the nature of ancient alcoholic beverages.

The results of the scientific analyses show a range of both expected and surprising results. Firstly, as a wide range of vessel types were tested, it is perhaps not surprising that not all vessels appear to have contained food or drink — some were potentially used for cosmetic or medicinal preparations. Of the food vessels, many contained evidence for either animal or vegetable (predominantly olive where identifiable) oils, as well as evidence for seasonings and leafy vegetables. Surprises include the identification of iris oil, a rare perfuming ingredient, and the repeated occurrence of wine treated with pine resin and aromatic herbs.

One article in this section provides broader context for the scientific results. Robert Arnott situates the results of the organic residue analysis of one particular site — Chrysokamino — in relation to the archaeology of the copper-smelting site and the known health hazards of smelting copper (particularly arsenic poisoning). The contents of the vessels at the site suggest a medicinal concoction rather than food or drink, and Arnott discusses the properties of each of the components found in relation to their potential benefit to the smelters at the site. Based on the evidence, he suggests that there existed an understanding of the “causal relationship between toxicity, injuries and remedies, more than two millennia before Hippocrates and Dioscorides” (p. 116).

The second section of this book is on carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analysis and contains two papers. The first incorporates a lengthy discussion of the methodology and interpretation of stable isotope analysis and goes on to present results from the sites in Crete and Achaea that were part of the initial project that lead to the publication of the first catalogue volume. The second paper expands the data with investigations into three additional Peloponnesian sites. Unfortunately, animal bones from these additional sites were not analysed, so direct comparison of the sites is difficult, but the general result is dietary mixture of protein from plants and terrestrial animals, with substantial contributions of marine protein present only for the individuals buried in Grave Circles A and B at Mycenae.

Lessons for the Future, the final section of the book, also contains only two chapters. These primarily focus on the problem of contamination in archaeological samples and provide practical recommendations for excavators to follow if they plan to perform chemical analyses on either pottery or human remains.

Overall, this book provides an excellent scientific exploration of both ceramic and human remains from Bronze Age Greece, though the focus is primarily on the ceramic evidence. The data are excellently presented, with clear indications of where positive identifications can and cannot be made, and well defined areas for future research. Physically, the book is well-made and the contents are generally free from errors. The bulk of the volume’s content is the presentation of new data, making a useful contribution to a growing body of scholarship on dietary practices in the ancient Aegean.

This volume would benefit, however, from a chapter or two pulling the individual threads of research together and situating the results within the broader research paradigms of the Greek Bronze Age. With the notable exception of Arnott’s chapter on Chrysokamino, very little archaeological context is provided for the individual finds, making it difficult to discern how the scientific data interact with the rest of the archaeological data from each site. It would be fascinating, for instance, to correlate results from the ceramic vessels with results from the human remains at the cemetery sites. While the goal of integrating scientific analyses with archaeological data is laudable, and the studies themselves are excellent, this volume does not take the further step of clearly illustrating how to integrate scientific data into the broader questions of early Greek culture.

Table of Contents:

Section 1:

Introduction to the History of Organic Residue Analysis (Curt W. Beck)

Certainty and Doubt in Organic Residue Analysis (Curt W. Beck and Edith Stout)

Analysis of Organic Remains in the Fabric of Minoan and Mycenaean Pottery Sherds by Gas Chromatography – Mass Spectrometry (Curt W. Beck, Edith C. Stout, Karen C. Lee, Adrien A. Chase, and Nicole De Rosa)

Absorbed Organic Residues in Pottery from the Minoan Settlement of Pseira, Crete (Curt W. Beck, Edith C. Stout, Karen M. Wovkulich, and Anna J. J. Phillips)

Organic Residue Analysis: Pseira (Ruth F. Beeston, Joe Palatinus and Curt W. Beck)

Organic Residue Analysis: Chrysokamino (Ruth F. Beeston, Joe Palatinus and Curt E. Beck)

Chrysokamino: Occupational Health and the Earliest Medicines on Crete (Robert Arnott)

Organic Residue Analysis of Ceramics from the Neolithic Cave of Gerani, West Crete (Oliver Craig)

Organic Residues in Pottery of the Bronze Age in Greece (The late John Evans – completed by Victor Garner)

Alternative Approaches to Organic Residue Analysis: The Early Helladic Cemetery at Kalamaki; the Mycenaean Settlement on Salamis; the Late Helladic Cemetery at Sykia, Vivara, settlement of Punta D’Alca, Bay of Naples, Italy (Victor Garner)

Atypical Calcium Carbonate Precipitates in Narrow-necked Late Helladic Jars: A Potential Indicator of Organic Residues (Andrew P. Gize, Margaret White, Steve Caldwell, Mandy Edwards and Roger Speak)

The Chemical Identification of Resinated Wine and a Mixed Fermented Beverage in Bronze Age Pottery Vessels of Greece (Patrick E. McGovern, Donald L. Glusker, Lawrence J. Exner, and Gretchen R. Hall)

Section 2:

Stable Isotope Evidence of Past Human Diet at the Sites of the Neolithic Cave of Gerani; The late Minoan III Cemetery of Armenoi; Grave Circles A and B at the Palace Site of Mycenae; and Late Helladic Chamber Tombs (M.P. Richards and R.E.M. Hedges)

Stable Isotope Results from New Sites in the Peloponnese: Cemeteries at Sykia, Kalamaki and Spaliareika (M.P. Richards and E. Vika)

Section 3:

Protocols: Ceramic Artefacts and Skeletal Material (Holley Martlew)

Biomolecular Archaeology in the Aegean Context: Problems and Prospects (Curt W. Beck, Victor Garner, Martin K. Jones and Michael P. Richards)

Appendix: Site Descriptions and Catalogue Entries (Holley Martlew, Philip P. Betancourt, Adamandia Vassilogamvrou, Yannis Moschos, Michaelis Gazis, Yannos G. Lolos, Ioanna Efstathiou, M. Marazzi, C. Giardino and C. Pepe)