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Dr Alexandra Livarda
University of Nottingham
International Fellowship

Shaping the archaeology of culinary practices

Cuisine and cooking technologies can reveal much about the society in which they occur, yet their archaeological study remains in its infancy. Alexandra Livarda and team are taking a site in Barcelona as a case study, to create practical research tools to help archaeologists identify different cooking methods and shed new light on food history

The site of el-Born, Barcelona.

Food is a basic human need. No matter what we do, every day we are all faced with decisions on what to eat or not to eat, decisions that concern not only the physical but also the social individual. Food can be used to educate, to control, to make a statement. Recent social movements (e.g. palaeodiet) and concerns for ‘healthy foods’, including a return to ancient grains and recipes, highlight the significance of diet in current cultural, economic and even political choices. Food in fact is dictated by a combination of environmental conditions, financial and cultural factors. As such it is an excellent means to investigate fundamental issues from past to the future, such as the emergence and processes of social stratification, new technologies, health and medicine, and so on.

In archaeology, food studies traditionally involve the study of individual culinary ingredients or their containers while archaeological research on cooking technologies is still undeveloped. More recently, methods such as starch analysis and biochemistry have opened new windows in the investigation of food and cuisine. For instance, different cooking and processing methods modify starch grains in a unique and recognisable manner that varies between species. Despite this great potential, still few archaeological studies exist and more experimental work is urgently needed to identify the variety of cooking techniques and their ‘expression’ on different foods. 

My project aims to fill in this gap and create research tools to allow the identification of cooking methods and significantly advance knowledge of the history of cuisine, and ultimately, of past societies. In collaboration with Dr Riera-Mora at the University of Barcelona, we will adapt a new technique for the extraction of archaeological evidence (pollen, starch and phytoliths) from ancient containers and surfaces associated with food production and consumption and also develop a new reference resource for cooked starch by cooking starch-rich recipes in ceramic containers. As a case study we will use material from the site of el-Born in Barcelona dated to the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, for which there is detailed documentation of every household. By combining archaeological and historical evidence we can then illuminate for the first time the food and, by extension, the cultural history of the late medieval and post-medieval city, and at the same time provide a new tool that can be used to examine similar issues across time and space.

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