Minoans Saw Wheat as Classy and Lentils as 'Plebeian' Fare, Archaeologists Deduce

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Ruins of the Minoan palace at Malia
The Minoan palace at Malia, which controlled wheat cultivation but scorned mention of lentilsCredit: Alexander Baranov
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Much about the Minoans has been baffling for modern scholarship, starting with their origins. That at least that has been cleared up. Despite seemingly being more advanced than their neighbors in the Aegean, the Minoans originated locally. The end of their civilization remains enigmatic. But now a paper sheds light on what they ate in the interim.

Published in the journal of Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences by Evgenia Tsafou of the Aegean Interdisciplinary Studies Group of UC Louvain and Juan José García-Granero of Oxford and of the Human Ecology and Archaeology Research Group of Barcelona, the new study augments previous work on the Minoan diet by analyzing starch grains in vessels at two Minoan sites on Crete, Sissi and Malia, during the "neopalatial," “final palatial” and “post-palatial” periods, from about 1700 to 1100 B.C.E.

Sissi and Malia were coastal towns about six kilometers from one another as the crow flies. Both were continuously occupied from about 2600 to 1200 B.C.E. Both had palatial as well as rather more ordinary buildings, enabling samples to be collected that could represent the material culture of society on the island, the authors explain.

Unsurprisingly, the archaeologists found traces of classic cereals such as wheat and barley. One would expect that, as wheat and barley were eaten throughout the Middle East, Levant and Mediterranean following their domestication thousands of years before the Minoans’ civilization arose. Other studies had demonstrated that these were major crops in Minoan-period Crete. Noting traces of their presence in different types of cooking pots, the team postulates that the cereals were prepared in a range of forms, from stewed to boiled and roasted.

MaliaCredit: Google Maps

Surprisingly, while pulses such as lentils and fava beans were also known to have been grown in ancient Crete, no pulse starch grains were detected in the cooking pots. That is quite the mystery, but the team suggests a couple of solutions.

A Linear A tablet from the 15th century BCECredit: Zde

Say it in Linear B

One possibility is that somehow, the starch signature of pulses did not preserve well in the ancient clay cookware. But the team tends to a different explanation: that pulse consumption had to do with “social context.”

What does that even mean? Despite traces of pulses being found in Minoan archaeology, including in palatial contexts, they aren’t referred to in the Minoan palatial records, which were written in Linear B, a form of late Minoan script, and which did mention wheat and barley.

The team therefore infers that pulses were held to be lowlier than cereals, and were not considered worthy of mention. Other researchers have suggested that the cultivation of pulses may have been household-based rather than controlled by the palace, as seems to have been the case of the cereals, whose cultivation was  apparently centrally controlled by the palaces. 

"Pulses must have been in the Minoan diet because it is very common finding among the archaeobotanical material in the Aegean prehistoric settlements," Tsafou explains. "The absence of pulses from starches shows  a different managment of this crop when it comes to its consumption. The political, economical and social implications of this fact needs further investigation."

Minoan frescoCredit: Jebulon

Another surprise for the archaeologists was evidence of millet starch in the pots, though Bronze Age Crete was not known to have farmed that particular grass. The team suspects that millet, a tiny grain compared with the great lumbering presence of wheat and barley and that sort of cereal, may simply not have been preserved well enough to create a substantial macro-botanical signal, yet it did indeed leave a micro-botanical signal: its starch in the clay pots. Or maybe that wasn’t millet but some other weed – the researchers aren’t categorically sure: the signature could may even have originated in another member of the great Panacoideae subfamily of grasses, such as maize. (Yes, corn is a grass.)

By the way, while wheat and barley, and fava beans and lentils, were apparently domesticated in the Middle East, millet was apparently domesticated in China, all this about 10,000 years ago.

Tsafou and García-Granero also report finding traces of tubers, including the tiger nut, aka nutsedge: Cyperus esculentus.

Tiger nuts are not well known to Western grocery-fed circles, and they’re not actually nuts, they’re a root. They were apparently cultivated as a staple in ancient Egypt and are consumed, raw or cooked, to this day throughout parts of Africa, the Mediterranean region and some areas in Europe. They don’t look like tigers or nuts; they look sort of like raisins with wrinkles that some think reminiscent of tiger striping. (By the way there is no such thing as a superfood, that is a marketing figment, but tiger nuts are considered to be nutritious.)

There were also several starch grains that Tsafou and García-Granero couldn’t identify, but suggest they come from other tubers or bulbs.

Minoan potteryCredit: Zde / Zdenk Kratochvl

Regarding leafy greens and fruits, the authors stress their absence in the archaeological botanical assemblage – but that could be because they were handled differently and stored for shorter periods than grains and legumes. In other words, they were eaten but didn’t leave traces behind, they weren't cooked in the pots the archaelogists examined, and were rendered invisible in the archaeological record, they explain.Tsafou clarifies that starch analysis could find things like figs and almonds for example, if they were cooked, but not the likes of grapes or olives. 

This said, obviously the Minoans ate some fruit and nuts; locally they could obtain acorn, almond, elderberry, fig, grape, Mediterranean hackberry, olive, pear, pomegranate and terebinth, Tsafou lists.

Add a dash of cumin and stir

As for herbs and condiments, the Minoan Linear B tablets mention them but the only macro-botanical evidence found so far amounted to exactly two coriander seeds. But Tsafou and García-Granero’s analysis also detected cumin use in the pots, albeit not much.

Until this study, there was no archaeological evidence for cumin use in the prehistoric Aegean, but records show its use there during the Bronze Age, and in Egypt and the Levant too, where it was used in cooked dishes, and its oil was and is used in various traditional concoctions that are purportedly medicinal in nature.

The palace at MaliaCredit: Schuppi

In Minoan Crete, the degree to which cumin was used remains unclear; in practice few of its starch grains were detected in the pots at the two sites. That could mean they would only use a dash of the seasoning, likely in stews. Alternatively, it could be that the cumin in that period had a different type of starch compared with today’s spice and it’s hard to detect.

Finding the traces of cumin was a suprise in the sense that its presence is not documented in the archaeobotanical materials from the Minoan settlements, meaning they were not found as burned seeds, Tsafou explains. Because cumin seeds are small and because they may be used as a condiment, rather than being cooked or boiled, renders their archaeological preservation practically impossible - but their study detected it; and detected that it wasn't just sprinkled on food as a condiment, but served in cooking.

The cumin may have been imported from the Eastern Mediterranean via Mycenae, though it could have been directly imported to Crete. It bears adding that archaeology has shown multiple times that long-distance trading not only preceded recorded history, it preceded the domestication of the horse, donkey and camel.

While on cumin, a Bar-Ilan University paper from 2015 suggested that it was brought to the southern Levant by the Philistines – who also brought the edible poppy of Europe, the sycamore of Egypt, the bay tree, and cumin from the Eastern Mediterranean. The evidence isn’t a smoking ship laden with imports but the fact that before the Philistines arrived, there is no trace of those plants in what is Israel today and they don’t grow wild here.

Aside from cumin, regarding spices, the Linear B tablets also mention coriander, sesame seeds, fennel bulb, mint and parsley. And saffron, which also appears in Minoan frescoes, including one found in the palace at Knossos. Apparently the flower was used abundantly on the island – not least as a dye and possibly as a putative medicinal agent. Cuneiform tablets from Assyria describe its use as a yellow dye and somewhat later, Greek and Roman records mention it as a colorant for textiles and skin, and as a medicine, as well as a spice.

Minoan fresco: picking saffronCredit: Zde / Zdenk Kratochvl

Starch analysis doesn't touch on the animals the Minoans ate; mainly sheep, goats and some pig, Tsafou says. They would have hunted wild animals too, she adds.

Tiger-nut cake

For dessert, let us end not with tiger-nut cake (it was a thing) but with a question: Just how reliable is the interpretation of the Linear B script? The answer is that enigmas remain but our understanding of this dead language, written in a dead alphabet, is considered reliable.

"It is very secure and accepted in the research community that the interpretation is correct and that Linear B is the ancestor of the Greek language, used by the Mycenaeans," Tsafou says. It was the writing system used on the Bronze Age mainland of Greece and Crete, and was deciphered in 1953 by an architect and cryptographer named Michael Ventris, based in part by decades of work by a Brooklyn College classicist, Alice Kober.

Without having a Rosetta stone, Ventris deduced that in contrast to the prevailing assumption at the time, Linear B was the written rendering of an early form of Greek. Linear B was used around the Aegean through to about 1100 B.C.E.

Linear B tabletCredit: ללא קרדיט
Minoan pot with inscriptionCredit: Zde / Archaeological Museum of H

In fact writing had begun earlier on Minoan Crete. They used a crude syllabic system known as Linear A from about 1800 to 1450 B.C.E. Well over a thousand tablets written in Linear A have been found.

The relationship between the two writing systems is still being argued about: whether Linear B arose from Linear A or not; is it a regional variant or an evolution. It is not even clear that Linear A is a form of proto-Greek.

In any case, in about 1200 B.C.E. the great civilizations around the Mediterranean suffered a massive collapse, and by the time our story ends, in about 1100 B.C.E., both writing systems vanished. It would take another few centuries for the Greek alphabet to emerge as a new writing system – and it was not based on Linear B, rather on the Semitic alphabet invented by the Phoenicians. Apropos of whom, these enterprising sailors were apparently responsible for importing the spice cinnamon from Southeast Asia to the Levant. So international spice trading was a thing and the import of cumin to Minoan Crete wouldn’t have been unusual. We thank thee, Phoenicians.

Linear BCredit: vintagedept / Ann Wuyts
Minoan bee ornamentCredit: Zde / Archeological Museum of He

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