Saturday, January 11, 2014

Research into Mycenaean grills and trays yields interesting results

Do you ever come across research that has some very interesting results but then draws conclusions that seen either so far-fetched or non-causal that you have trouble determining the value of the research? When I first read about the research done on Mycenaean grills by Julie Hruby of Dartmouth College, that was my exact reaction.


Hruby has conducted an interesting experiment to find out the use of various clay griddles and trays found amongst the ruins of Mycenaean palatial settlements. The equipment had been determined to be used for cooking, but the details of how food was prepared with them was never determined. No one knew if the rectangular ceramic pans that sat underneath skewers of meat would have been placed directly over a fire, catching fat drippings from the meat, or if the pans would have held hot coals like a portable barbeque pit. The round griddles had tiny holes on their one side, while the other was smooth... how were these griddles used?

Hruby took it upon herself to discover these ancient cooking techniques and teamed up with ceramicist Connie Podleski, of the Oregon College of Art and Craft. the artist mixed American clays to mimic Mycenaean clay and created two griddles and two souvlaki trays in the ancient style. With their replica cookware, they tried to cook meat and bread.

So far, so good. On the trays, they found that meat only cooked properly when coals were shuffled into it to roast the meat from up-close, and bread was most likely baked on the side with the holes so it did not stick too badly if oil was used lavishly. I find these results very interesting, and long for more and better pictures than the article provides.

Now on to the conclusions:
  • "We should probably envision these as portable cooking devices — perhaps used during Mycenaean picnics."
  • "As for the griddles, bread was more likely to stick when it was cooked on the smooth side of the pan. The holes, however, seemed to be an ancient non-sticking technology, ensuring that oil spread quite evenly over the griddle."
  • "They're coming from elite structures, but I doubt very much that the elites were doing their own cooking," Hruby told LiveScience. "There are cooks mentioned in the Linear B [a Mycenaean syllabic script] record who have that as a profession — that's their job — so we should envision professional cooks using these."
 I... do not fully agree, but most of all I resist modern terminology like 'picnic' and 'non-sticking technology'. When interpreting anything left behind by ancient civilizations, it is easy to taint the interpretations with your modern way of thinking. Unfortunately, this not only hampers your ability to draw the right conclusions, but also the ability to do good research.
 
I haven't read the report, so perhaps Hruby has done far more extensive research than we are led to believe, but I for one find myself wondering how hot the bottom of these trays become, because I severely doubt that they were used (only?) for 'picnics'. It would seem far more logical to use these in-doors as regular cooking appliances so the meat burns over an easily manageable bed of coals from the hearth instead of over the hearth itself--which would then be soiled with fat and would need a lot of maintenance to be restored. If the bottom remains relatively cool, these could just have been placed on a table or other surface to make cooking far easier. It would also explain why they are portable; it is much easier to bring the tray to the fire, shuffle coals in, and then carrying it to your cooking area than to transport coals to a fixed tray. I don't understand why these appliances are negeted to a fringe 'picnic'-status? Were they only found in meadows?
 
I find myself equally wondering about the grills--of which I have yet to find a good picture... anyone?--because it seems odd to solely consider this as an 'or'-situation. Bread was either baked on the smooth side or the side with holes. No, why? Why not consider they baked one type of bread on the one side and another type of bread on the other? Maybe they made honey cakes on the flat side, or baked eggs on it, I don't know, but I doubt they made a smooth surface just to disregard it during cooking.
 
As for the last mentioned conclusion... I am sure some of the Mycenaean elite had cooks, and these ceramic tools were used by them, and yes, there were probably many people who did not own these, but I somehow doubt that tools like these were used only by professional cooks. It's not rocket science, and it seems to make life a lot easier. As far as I know, we have no evidence to support either theory, so why even limit your conclusion to 'professional cooks for the elite'?
 
All in all, I would love to read Hruby's paper on the subject and see better pictures of the cooking process. I think the subject matter is very interesting and while it may not be the most glamorous of studies, I am far more concerned with items like these--items that belonged to the household--than the finery that has survived from the late Bronze Age (1700 BC to roughly 1200 BC). What do you think about the research and conclusions?


2 comments:

arsowen said...

It's interesting. My first thought was maybe they'd be taken on military campaigns for cooking, that it would be easier for the soldiers than building a fire. Or, if they didn't want the attention a campfire would bring, maybe these grills would be small enough to use?

I also raised an eyebrow at the picnic comment.

Elani Temperance said...

@Arsowen: Hum, that is an interesting theory! That said, to get coals hot enough to cook with like this, the fire would have to burn for a rather long time before settling. I'm not sure about the attention thing because of this. Still, it would be valid, I think, to at least entertain the idea of these grills coming along on military campaigns. Thank you!