The Original Domestic Goddess; Do Today's Recipes Originate from 4,000 Year-Old Home Cooking? Andrew Davies Finds Out

The Birmingham Post (England), July 13, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Original Domestic Goddess; Do Today's Recipes Originate from 4,000 Year-Old Home Cooking? Andrew Davies Finds Out


What did the original Greek domestic goddess have on the hob to titillate her husband's tastebuds when he came home from a hard day's work?

And what would she rustle up for a dinner party with friends, an impromptu snack for a night in front the mural, or even a quick cocktail?

A groundbreaking - and groundexcavating - new exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery sheds some light on what would have been on the menu for the Mycenaean or Minoan family 4,000 years ago.

For the first time, archaeologists are piecing together not only what ancient Crete or Mycenae's answer to Nigella Lawson was cooking, but also the type of drinks she and her family would be mixing - and even the beauty preparations she might be applying to her skin or the herbal remedies she was preparing.

Like many archaeological exhibitions, Minoans and Mycenaeans: Flavours of their Time contains a large number of pots, amphorae and other vessels, not to mention the odd skeleton or two.

But it also presents a graphic picture of the diet and customs of the race from this part of the ancient Greek world, nicknamed the cradle of civilization.

Dr Yiannis Tzedakis, director general of antiquities for the Greek government and archaeologist, explains: 'This is not an archaeological exhibition as we usually do them. It's an exhibition based on the result of state-of-the-art enquiries into artefacts, both pots and skeletons.' The exhibition - exclusive to Birmingham after showing in Athens and Chicago - reveals the finds of excavations by Dr Tzedakis and colleague Dr Holley Martlew of some 15 sites around Crete, where the Minoans were based in the Bronze age (3000 to 1100BC), ancient Mycenae and other sites on the Greek mainland where the Mycenaeans had outposts.

The excavations also called on the help of Birmingham University-based medical historian Robert Arnold, who identified individual medical conditions like pressure aneurisms and practices such as trepanning.

Shards of pottery from some of the pots were sent away for analysis, and put through a mass spectrometer.

The machine identified the various chemicals present in traces of food absorbed by the porous pots, then food scientists analysed the chemical traces and pieced together which foods they would have come from.

The food scientists were able to identify not only that a pot was once used to cook a casserole, but also that the dish contained sheep or goat meat, onion, olive oil and wine.

Splinters of bone were also analysed, along with different protein types found in the collagen of the bones, revealing that it came from either meat, fish or vegetable.

'This is pioneering work. This sort of technique is usually only used for environmental science projects and forensic science work - it's far too expensive for most archaeologists to use. It's the first time anything like this has been done,' says Dr Martlew.

The groundbreaking methods unearthed a host of exciting discoveries.

'We found these people had a far better diet - even poor people were found to eat a lot of meat - which was contrary to what was believed,' Dr Martlew adds. …

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