Experimental Archaeology (More on Minoan Cooking)

28 Feb

The first demonstration of cooking in the way we believe the Minoans cooked their food was held during the winter of 2011 at a Taverna in Pacheia Ammos Crete. There have since been two further events hosting between 80 and 200 people at each event.

Building explanatory models using hands-on method for discovery and teaching is a two phase process. First the LM l (Late Minoan) kitchen had to be reconstructed and then the food is prepared and served as a meze (small bites of food) to a group of individuals willing to parcipitate and share their opinions of the experience, second whether it is a modern or an ancient  kitchen,one must have a collection of cook-pots,utensils a hearth, and the proper ingredients to prepare the food.

For the cooking demonstrations replicas of LM l (Late Minoan) cook-pots e.g. tripod cooking pots,jars and wok shaped cooking dishes with broad spouts were produced from clay that macroscopically and petrographically closely matches the cook-pots found on the Mochlos excavation.(Barnard 2003; Nodarou 2003. Collaboration between Barnard, Nodarou and Morrison 2004.

Utensils were collected, such as wooden spoons,wooden lids covered with leather and super saturated with water,ceramic lids,thick cotton pot holders,straw brooms, and flat wooden paddles used to move coals under the pots for cooking. As supplimentary modern tools ,tin- foil lids and iron shovels and tongs were collected

Built hearth structures are largely absent from the archaeological record,but concentrated areas of ash and charcoal are found on domestic sites both indoors and outdoors(Muhly 1984; Soles 2003; Rutter 2004; Brogan et al. forthcoming) For this reason, a large hearth was built at each venue by placing stones in a circle and fueled using olive wood charcoal, small branch clippings and oil.


For one of the food demonstrations a seafood soup was prepared in a replica cooking dish using top shells and limpets and flavoured with honey,grape syrup, red wine vinegar,sea salt, olive oil, leeks and garlic. Seven food dishes have been created by Minoiton Gefsies and served at the cooking events. In the tripod cooking pots and jars the following have been prepared.

Lentils seasoned with honey,bay leaf,crushed coriander seed,sea salt and topped off with olive oil.

Octopus simmered in either beer or red wine and seasoned with thyme, garlic, and leeks.

Beef liver simmered in pureed chestnuts ,honey, crushed coriander seed and garlic.

Rabbit stewed with leeks and garlic,seasoned with honey, bay leaf and whole coriander seeds.


In the bowl of the cooking dishes the following foods were prepared.

Sauteed cuts of pork seasoned with grape syrup, leek and garlic

sauteed lamb seasoned with whole coriander seeds, garlic and leek and finished off in a Cretan red wine reduction. The cooking dishes were also turned upside down and placed on supports over coals. This enabled their domed surfaces to be used to bake flat bread. The flat bread is made of wheat,barley,fennel seeds and sea salt.


The response to the cooking demonstration continued to be enthusiastic on occasion overwhelming.The winter event at Pacheia Ammos,the weather was cold,windy and rainy so it was very difficult to maintains the proper cooking temperatures in the poorly covered hearth,however once the problem became aparent,participants immediately began building a more suitable roof to protect the hearth,stoking and fanning the coals to keep them lit,and covering the replica cook-pots with lids and tin-foil to maintain the heat.

From this experience, it was obvious that regardless of an individuals knowledge of ancient cooking practices,they understood fundamental principles of cooking over a hearth fire. This confirms that introducing archaeological topics to the public in interactive ways can extend curiosities beyond viewing objects in a museum to how these objects were used daily in ancient societies. It was such a pleasure for my colleages Jerolyn Morrison,Jad Alyounis and Stefi Chlouveraki founders of the project, pulling the replica cook-pots from the fire,plating the food and serving people.

When preparing the food there was a noticeable difference between the techniques required to cook in the various types of LMl (Late Minoan replica cook-pots. The tripod cooking pots and jars are closed vessels that made it difficult to visualize into the pot to determine if the food was fully cooked. The food must be either spooned out in order to see with your eyes,or for your nose to smell the food, and/or for your hands to feel the texture to determine if it is ready for serving.Open vessel shapes of cooking dishes expose the food making it visible. In tripod cooking pots and jars, the food is  cooked in the belly of the pot,making the evaporation of natural juices and added liquids fairly slow..

Interestingly,the entire cooking event from lighting the coals to serving took approximately two and one-half hours. It takes about 45 minutes to prepare the coals and warm the replica vessels for cooking,while the remaining time was used  to cook the food. This is not a significant amount of time when compared with the time it takes to prepare these food dishes in a modern kitchen equipped with a gas stove.

Other notable observations are that once the cooked food was removed from the replica cook-pots the vessels cooled quickly, allowing them to be cleaned using bare hands and room temperature (or warm) water. The cleaned vessels retained the smells of the food. At first, one could imagine that perhaps the Minoans kept certain pots for specific food items,such as those used to prepare seafood,but this may not be the case. Smells and ideals of steralization are cultural and what would be unpleasant or unclean to us might not have bothered the Minoans.

We learned that at the beginning of the subsequent rounds of cooking the smells from previous cooked food were not detectable once the cook-pots were warmed near the coals and their interiors were coated with olive oil in order to prevent food from sticking.

The value in this teaching method is that the participants,through their five senses,approach archaeological and anthropological topics more intuitively,allowing for a deeper and more accurate understanding of how people lived in the past. It also provides a format for archaeologists to test their theories about how ancient people performed specific tasks,like cooking.

 Food in tripod cooking pots



                           Placing flatbread to cook.

 Jerolyn checking the food.

  Jerolyn and Matina Tzari plating the food.



At the Instap Study Centre where everyone exchanges their opinion of the enjoyable day of Minoan cooking

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Posted by on February 28, 2012 in Experimental Archaeology


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