by Roleen Sevillena
Food. The bane of our existence, yet a part of daily life that’s often overlooked.
How many of us EBAPers actually know where the tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and olives in our almost-daily horiatiki salatas (Greek salads) were grown? Or what wheat was used to make the pasta in the pastitsio that seems to quickly be devoured once put in front of the group? We may appreciate the Greek cuisine that fills our stomachs and satiates our hungry, hard-working bodies… but how connected are we to all of the ingredients that make up the mouth-watering Greek dishes we so happily consume? All of the moussaka, souvlaki, yemista, saganaki, and gyros. Sure enough, the list goes on and on.
But of course dishes of this kind did not always exist. Before all of the casseroles, grilled meat skewers, baked stuffed vegetables, and pan-fried cheese, diets of the ancients were much less extravagant. Olives and wheat can be speculated to be a large part of ancient Greek diets, especially since they had been recorded on Linear B tablets. Such evidence has been found on tablets mentioning our site of ancient Eleon, expressing not only their connection with the palace at Thebes and economic importance in general, but also their eating habits.
But how is it that we can find out more about the diets of people who lived long before our grandparent’s time? Sure, written evidence can plant the seed of our ancient diet and agricultural knowledge, but it’s the seeds themselves that can tell us stories about the handling and consumption of food. Through paleobotany, stories about plants and people spring to life.
First you must grab a soil sample from the archaeological site in question. Then when put in water the botanical remains separate from the dirt. Such remains will float to the surface. The magic of charred seeds can then be explored. Charred seeds are those that have been subject to hotter-than-humanely-livable temperatures with a scarce amount of oxygen. These fired up seeds preserve the state of the seed, preventing decay and damage, allowing paleobotany enthusiasts to see how food plants were being used in ancient times. Jake, who opened my eyes to such an art, used glume-based wheats as an example of grain not often used for bread. It is through examining grain properties that we can knowledgably speculate how wheat, barley, etc. was processed, stored, and consumed, and the scale at which this occurred.
And that my friends, is what Jake would call the “unsexy truth of the Mycenaean world.” Noting the lack of excitement for the ancient diet of mostly bread and porridge. Jake’s speedy 5 minute garden talk left my brain with a large spurt of paleobotany knowledge along with the craving to learn more about the ancient diet. Although studying charred seeds doesn’t give us the full spectrum of eating habits from the past, it gives us a starting point to say the least.
Greek cuisine and our eating lifestyles in general have shifted significantly since the times of the Mycenaeans. Maybe the next time we eat a fresh Greek salad with local ingredients we can think about how fortunate we are to have come such a long way in our gastronomic endeavors. From growing food plants all the way to preparation, hard work is involved to feed the hungry stomachs of the world. Hunger-satisfying meals made with good, wholesome ingredients do more than give people energy to go about their days; they’re integral to culture and bringing groups of people together, EBAPers included. Learning more about paleobotany during EBAP will not only open doors of knowledge about ancient diets, but can hopefully spark a connection with the people of today and the food that they eat.