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Archaeodiet in the Greek World: Dietary Reconstruction from Stable Isotope Analysis

Archaeodiet in the Greek World: Dietary Reconstruction from Stable Isotope Analysis

Edited by Anastasia Papathanasiou, Michael P. Richards, and Sherry C. Fox (Hesperia Suppl. 49). Pp. xii + 211, b&w figs. 52, tables 31. The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Princeton 2015. $75. ISBN 978-0-87661-549-2 (paper).

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This volume constitutes the first compilation of a large set of stable isotope results on the diet of past populations from Greece. Although the data are of unequal quality, they form a substantial resource for the discussion of general trends in paleodiet in this context, as well as set the scene for further developments in the field. At the same time, the inclusion of tables allows readers to access and analyze the data, and, in light of new knowledge, reinterpret them. Specialists working on similar material thus have the opportunity to use these data sets in their research.

All but two of the papers in the volume were presented at the 16th European meeting of the Paleopathology Association in 2006 at a session entitled “Stable Isotopic Studies in Greece.” The aims of the conference session were to bring together researchers using direct biochemical evidence to investigate archaeodiet in Greece in order to compare results, discuss technical and interpretational problems, and formulate new research questions. Although to a great extent contributions do compare results, the volume clearly lacks technical and methodological discussion. The date of the conference explains why certain key regions or sites in Greece for which there are currently stable isotope data published are absent from the volume (see, e.g., I. Kontopoulos and A. Sampson, “Prehistoric Diet on the Island of Euboea, Greece: An Isotopic Investigation,” Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry 15 [2015] 97–111).  It also explains why the editors in the summary chapter, where they discuss cutting-edge scientific applications in Greece, do not highlight recent developments in strontium and oxygen isotope ratio research in relation to population residential mobility and migration (see, e.g., A. Nafplioti, “Mycenaean Political Domination of Knossos Following the Late Minoan IB Destructions on Crete: Negative Evidence from Strontium Isotope Ratio Analysis (87Sr/86Sr),” JAS 35 [2008] 2307–17; A. Nafplioti, “The Mesolithic Occupants of Maroulas on Kythnos: Skeletal Isotope Ratio Signatures of Their Geographic Origin,” in A. Sampson et al., eds., The Prehistory of the Island of Kythnos (Cyclades, Greece) and the Mesolithic Settlement at Maroulas [Krakow 2010] 207–15; M. Richards et al., “Strontium Isotope Evidence of Neanderthal Mobility at the Site of Lakonis, Greece Using Laser-Ablation PIMMS,” JAS 35 [2008] 1251–56).

The geographic and temporal framework of the volume shows that Greece is among the most active regions worldwide in terms of paleodietary isotopic applications. The main part of the book starts with a review paper on the Neolithic and Bronze Age mainland and the island of Kea (Papathanasiou). It continues with Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age Macedonia (Triantaphyllou), Early and Middle Bronze Age Boeotia (Vika), Late Bronze Age East Lokris (Iezzi), Geometric Phthiotis (Panagiotopoulou and Papathanasiou), classical, Hellenistic, and Roman Attica (Lagia), and the classical Greek colony of Apollonia on the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria (Kwok and Keenleyside), and it ends with the Byzantine mainland and Crete (Bourbou and Garvie-Lok). The inclusion of Apollonia justifies the use of the term “Greek world” instead of “Greece” in the title, although the isotope evidence for diet from this site is not sufficient to reconstruct the subsistence and economy of the greater Greek world, as the editors aimed to do. More than one site would be required to fulfill this goal.

Chapter 1 (Papathanasiou and Fox) presents the aims of the book and sets the background of paleodietary research in Greece, including both isotopic and nonisotopic approaches. It succinctly describes the book’s chapters and summarizes the particular questions addressed in the volume. Richards (ch. 2) describes the analytical methodology and specific laboratory procedures used by most of the studies in the volume, thereby avoiding repetition in subsequent chapters. In the cases where laboratory protocols differ, it would have been particularly instructive if cross-laboratory comparisons in terms of the methodology for collagen extraction, preparation, and analysis had been carried out on the same samples. In this context, Papathanasiou’s (ch. 3) cross-laboratory comparison is limited to the actual analysis of collagen samples. Neither this nor any of the other chapters assesses earlier steps in the procedure, despite the fact that a review of technical problems was one of the aims of the 2006 conference session mentioned above.

Throughout the book, variation in the stable isotope data is discussed in a clear bioarchaeological framework with reference to particular temporal, geographic, environmental, social, and cultural parameters. The contributing authors integrate isotope data with osteological, archaeobotanical, material culture, or literacy evidence, thereby enhancing the discussion of the isotope data. Their principal conclusions may be summarized as follows: (1) diet in prehistoric and historic Greece was a mainly C3 terrestrial protein-based diet, where variation in the relative proportion of plant vs. animal protein by temporal, geographic, sex, and status factors exists; (2) possible evidence for C4 protein in the human diet is only sporadic in prehistoric Greece; (3) diachronically, fish or other marine foods are not a major resource even for populations with comparatively easy access to the sea; and (4) there is continuity in weaning practices from the Graeco-Roman period until the Byzantine era.

In the summary chapter, Papathanasiou and Richards acknowledge limitations to the data and offer a thorough discussion of the complete data set presented in the book, looking at general long-term trends and patterns and linking them back to the principal archaeological questions set out in chapter 1. In some cases, however, patterns are exaggerated, as interpretation of the data is significantly compromised by the small size or the age or sex composition of the population sample analyzed, or the paucity or absence of appropriate baseline isotope signatures for the local food webs at the sites investigated. For instance, a sample of one individual is hardly representative of the Mesolithic population in Greece. Also, conclusions about the differential access to foods between males and females should be treated with extreme caution and statistical analysis avoided where each group is represented by fewer than five individuals. In addition, it should be noted that where nursing infants are included along with adults in a population sample tested for collagen nitrogen isotope ratio values, conclusions on animal protein consumption at the population level may be distorted by the “breast-feeding effect.” In relation to the question of marine fish consumption in Greece, recent research on archaeological and modern fish from this context (S. Garvie-Lok, “Loaves and Fishes: A Stable Isotope Reconstruction of Diet in Medieval Greece,” Ph.D. diss., University of Calgary [2001]; E. Vika and T. Theodoropoulou, “Re-investigating Fish Consumption in Greek Antiquity: Results from δ13C and δ15N Analysis from Fish Bone Collagen,” JAS 39 [2012] 1618–27), corroborated by archaeological human bone evidence (A. Nafplioti, “Eating in Prosperity: First Stable Isotope Evidence of Diet from Palatial Knossos,” JAS: Reports 6 [2016] 42–52), showed that marine fish consumption, small fish in particular, may be masked by fish nitrogen isotope values that are lower compared  with other parts of Europe.

Despite its shortcomings, the book still is the first compilation of its kind for Greece, and it will be of interest primarily to bioarchaeologists who specialize in stable isotope ratio analysis, while human bone specialists and archaeologists in general will also find it interesting and useful.

Argyro Nafplioti
McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research
University of Cambridge

Book Review of Archaeodiet in the Greek World: Dietary Reconstruction from Stable Isotope Analysis, edited by Anastasia Papathanasiou, Michael P. Richards, and Sherry C. Fox

Reviewed by Argyro Nafplioti

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 4 (October 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1214.Nafplioti

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