Food and Ethnic Identity

My dissertation research uses the combined study of cooking pottery (unglazed clay vessels like the sherd shown below) and faunal (animal bone) analysis to examine ethnic boundaries in archaeology. I apply two laboratory techniques--gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) and gas chromatography-combustion-isotope ratio mass spectrometry (GC-C-IRMS)--to the analysis of south Levantine cooking pots and jugs from twenty archaeological sites dated to the Iron Age II (10th- 7th centuries BCE), a time period generally recognized as pivotal in the development of regional Iron Age ethnic identities.

GC/MS testing identifies the chemical compounds in the cooking ingredients that were absorbed into the fabric of the unglazed clay during the cooking process. GC-C-IRMS (isotope) testing helps identify the origin of animal products like meat and dairy product residues extracted from pottery samples. I then compare molecular results with faunal data from each studied site, and this acts as a means to evaluate the accuracy of archaeological faunal analysis as a reliable indicator of regional food use and ethnic identity.

Because of the site’s overwhelmingly domestic context and continuity of settlement, the Tell en-Nasbeh assemblage offers me the opportunity to examine "home cooking" during the Iron Age II to better understand ancient food use in the "Hill Country" region of what is now the modern Israel/Palestine.

Moreover, the collection houses an assemblage of animal bones that were excavated by Dr. Badè during a time period when most archaeologists discarded materials of natural origin, such as bone, and also utilitarian pottery such as undecorated cooking vessels. The Tell en-Nasbeh faunal collection is extremely interesting and informative because it features bone from non-domesticated species such as wild boar, providing information regarding the exploitation of "wild" animals by the Iron Age population.

Pottery and bone samples from Tell en-Nasbeh are important components of my research, characterizing Iron Age food use in the Hill Country. The Badè Museum is a unique resource for archaeological research, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to apply newer archaeological techniques to the interpretation of its extraordinary collection.

Mary Larkum (University of Massachusetts Amherst)