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Ancient Cookware from the Levant: An Ethnoarchaeological Perspective

Ancient Cookware from the Levant: An Ethnoarchaeological Perspective

By Gloria London. Pp. xiv + 312. Equinox Publishing, Sheffield, England 2016. $150. ISBN 978-1-78179-199-8 (cloth).

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In this volume, London summarizes the kitchen equipment people used in the Levant and Cyprus from prehistory through the early modern period and aims to contextualize this archaeological evidence through ethnographic study of traditional potters in present-day Cyprus. Scholars of ancient cuisine will recognize the significance of this project because, as London reminds us, specific detailed references in the ancient and medieval written record to the preparation of food are sparse. The author argues that observation of traditional potters and the use of clay pots today can do much to explain why ancient potters made pots the way they did and how people used pots of similar design (e.g., 3, 269). While analogies between culturally charged and economically contingent practices separated by centuries or millennia should be made with caution, London’s work alerts us to a range of interpretive possibilities that are not evident through the examination of mute sherds alone.

The book consists of three parts: “Traditional Ceramics in the Levant and Cyprus” (chs. 1–11), “Ancient Manufacturing Techniques for Cookware” (chs. 12, 13), and “Cookware Through the Ages” (chs. 14–22). The ethnoarchaeological heart of the book is part 1, in which London draws on records of the traditional pottery industry on Cyprus, oral traditions concerning the production of pottery, and her own observations of traditional potters and their local customers on Cyprus and in the Levant. These chapters are full of fascinating observations with implications for how we interpret the archaeological record. Some examples include the deliberate crushing of sherds for use in construction, potters who travel seasonally between lower and higher elevations to work with local clays in each area, and the scarcity of wasters discarded by household potters when compared with workshops that produced bricks en masse. In the latter case, London suggests that such an arrangement might account for the scarcity of identified production sites predating the Hellenistic and Roman periods in the Levant and Cyprus.

London’s work is also pertinent to scholars who try to connect written and material records. She shows that names for specific shapes often vary across regions or change over the course of a century or less, which should give archaeologists pause when assigning ancient names attested in texts to similar-seeming pots found in excavations. Her interviews with users of traditional clay pots in both Cyprus and the Philippines show that in both places it is common knowledge that using a pot previously used to cook or hold dairy products would spoil meat. She makes an intriguing connection between this practical knowledge and the biblical prohibition on cooking meat with milk in Exodus (23:19, 34:26) and Deuteronomy (14:21) to suggest that in their original context these passages may have been a reflection of commonly held wisdom rather than a new stricture.

In part 3, London summarizes the repertoire of Levantine pottery used for cooking and food processing from the Neolithic to recent times. These summaries take into account general trends across the region in each period. With the exception of those covering the Late Ottoman period and recent times, each chapter includes a figure with drawings illustrating the shapes mentioned in the text. Since regional variations were common and the repertoire of shapes often changed within these centuries-long periods, the figures should not be seen as snapshots of typical assemblages. Thus, the reader should pay close attention to the textual descriptions and figure captions to distinguish between shapes used only in certain areas or earlier or later in a given period. London’s summaries themselves are sufficient to give an impression of what was used in each period, though researchers who require more details about chronology, typology, or regional variations will want to consult site reports and period-specific studies of cooking vessels. Her chapter “Late Ottoman/Mandate and Recent Wheel-Thrown Ceramics” ties in well with her own ethnographic observations.

Uneven coverage of complicated topics is a risk in writing any ambitious work that covers multiple periods and regions while integrating different scholarly approaches—in this case archaeological, historical, and ethnographic. In her discussion of the geography of the Levant, London describes rainfall patterns in great detail with only a cursory mention of vegetal zones, while in her discussion of the geography of Cyprus she omits discussion of rainfall patterns and includes a detailed list of the crops grown on the island. The emphasis on different parameters in each area hinders comparison. Given that rainfall and vegetation are not brought into discussion later in the book, it might have been best to omit this section. Similarly, while London’s summary of passages in the Hebrew Bible concerning cuisine and its preparation is detailed and well integrated into her analysis (17–18, 138–41), her suggestion that there are almost no references to the preparation of food in Greek sources prior to Athenaeus in the second century C.E. is inaccurate (19). Such a characterization ignores, for example, the preparation of meat in the Iliad, references to a wide variety of ingredients and dishes in Aristophanes’ Acharnians, and the kitchen equipment in the Attic Stelai published by Amyx and Pritchett (“The Attic Stelai: Part III. Vases and Other Containers,” Hesperia 27 [1958] 255–310). Since ancient Greek (as opposed to Levantine) cuisine is not a specific point of emphasis in this volume, discussion of the Greek sources could also have been omitted.

These issues of focus and editing do little to detract from a book that will be of great value to researchers who take sherds, seeds, and bones as the starting point for ancient cookery. By providing vivid examples of the contemporary production and use of traditional pottery, London reminds us of the human depth and complexity behind the production of kitchen equipment and the preparation of meals. In so doing, she provides archaeologists much food for thought regarding how ancient cooking wares could have been made, sold, and used.

Peter J. Stone
Department of History
Virginia Commonwealth University


Book Review of Ancient Cookware from the Levant: An Ethnoarchaeological Perspective, by Gloria London

Reviewed by Peter J. Stone

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 1 (January 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1221.stone

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