Focus on experimental archaeology

Experimental archaeology has been used to document such issues in the different fields of archaeobotany as the formation processes of dessicated and charred plant remains (Guarino & Sciarillo 2004; Van der Veen 2007); the model sequences of grape processing (Margaritis & Jones 2006) and olive oil processing (Braadbaart et al. 2016); the contexts of starch loss, transformation and preservation (Barton & Torrence 2015) and the processes and technologies of cereal based porridge-type preparations (González Carretero et al. 2017) inter alia. In the field of organic residues, R. P. Evershed in a seminal article (2008) has advocated the need for experimental approaches of absorbed biomaterials in archaeology to investigate such critical questions as vessel use, physical and chemical phenomena relating to deposition and transformations and to identify novel biomarkers (with a bibliography at date). Experimental archaeology has originally been applied to document the main fields of research of the discipline: fatty acids (Evershed et al. 2008) and resins and pitch processing, particularly beech tar (Hayek et al. 1990; Puchinger et al. 2007; Mitkidou et al. 2008; Rageot et al. 2013; Groom et al. 2013). Experimental archaeology has also proved itself by providing breakthroughs about amphorae permeation, which have allowed to challenge archaeological assumptions about the wine or oil contents (Romanus et al. 2009). Over the years, the questions addressed have become more sophisticated with experimental, ethnoarchaeological and archaeological studies being combined to understand the chemical residues preserved in floors (Pecci et al. 2013, 2017); the ceramic retention mechanisms of possible wine markers (Teodor et al. 2014) and a pilot testing of thermal degradation of a preparation combining pitch and honey (Duce et al. 2015). However, so far, no comprehensive program has been designed to address the aromatic product biomarkers, especially those from flowers and leaves, and, within the resins, the specific biomarkers of the different Mediterranean Conifers, European oil signatures (other than olive and Brassicaceae) and complex multi-element recipes and preparation processes. As far as aromatic products are concerned, some case-study experiments have been conducted to elucidate the results obtained for a Roman cosmetic (Evershed et al. 2004) and to understand boiled epicuticular leaf waxes, albeit only on Brassicaceae (the cabbage family) so far (Charters & Evershed 1997). The “Seplasia project” conducted by the Centre Jean Bérard (Naples) aimed to reconstitute Roman perfumes on the basis of archaeological, iconographical, textual and biochemical data (Brun & Fernandez 2015, 181-233). Six ancient recipes, known from Greek and Latin authors (Theophrastus, Dioscorides, Pliny the Elder) were reconstituted. The antique processes of production were observed but performed in modern laboratories with modern technical material (Brun & Fernandez 2015, 200-234). For Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean, the Italian Centre for Experimental Archaeology “Antiquitates” of Blera ran tests of experimental archaeology to verify the interpretation of the archaeological data from the excavations of Pyrgos (Cyprus) and the efficiency of the ancient technologies. Replicas of Bronze Age ceramic vases were reproduced (1) to identify their functional use in a perfume factory, (2) to prove the use of maceration and proto-distillation through experimentation, with olive, almond oils and aromatic herbs as such rosemary, lavender, marjoram and myrtle (Belgiorno 2007, 136-148).

For Archaic western Mediterranean, our team started its experimental trials in 2011 with yearly campaigns integrating student groups from the University of Bretagne Sud. A potter skilled in archaeology reproduced different types of Phoenician, Etruscan and Greek archaic pottery. Based on the results of biochemical analyses from our two research programs and on some archeological and botanical researches, the focus concerned the medicinal, cosmetic and perfume-making techniques in central Italy and Sardinia in the Archaic period. The objectives were to (1) elucidate the technical function of several ingredients such as beeswax/honey, conifer resin and pitch, (2) regain the lost know-how and the successive stages of medicinal/perfumed oil making. 


Barton H. & Torrence R. 2015- “Cooking up recipes for ancient starch: assessing current methodologies and looking to the future”, Journal of Archaeological Science, 56, 2015, 194–201.

Belgiorno M.R. (ed.) 2007- I profumi di Afrodite e il segreto dell’olio. Scoperte archeologiche a Cipro, Rome. 

Braadbaart F., Marinova E. & Sarpaki A. 2016-  “Charred olive stones: experimental and archaeological evidence for recognizing olive processing residues used as fuel”, Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, 25, 5, 415–430.

Brun J.P. & Fernandez X. 2015– Parfums antiques. De l’archéologue au chimiste, Milan. 

Charters S. & Evershed R.P. 1997- “Simulation Experiments for Determining the Use of Ancient Pottery Vessels: the Behaviour of Epicuticular Leaf Wax During Boiling of a Leafy Vegetable”, Journal of Archaeological Science, 24, 1, 1-7.

Duce C., Orsini S., Spepi A., Colombini M.P., Tiné M.R. &  Ribechini E. 2015- “Thermal degradation chemistry of archaeological pine pitch containing beeswax as an additive”, Journal of Analytical and Applied Pyrolysis, 111, 254–264.

Evershed R.P. 2008- “Experimental approaches to the interpretation of absorbed organic residues in archaeological ceramics”, World Archaeology, 40, 1, 26–47.

Evershed R.P., Berstan R., Grew F., Copley M.S., Charmant A.J.H., Barham E., Mottram H.R., Brown G. 2004- “Archaeology: formulation of a Roman cosmetic”, Nature, 432, 7013, 35–36.

González Carretero L., Wollstonecroft M., Fuller D.Q. 2017- “A methodological approach to the study of archaeological cereal meals: a case study at Çatalhöyük East (Turkey)”, Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, 26, 4, 1–18.

Groom P., Schenck T., Pedersen G.M. 2013- “Experimental explorations into the ceramic dry distillation of Betula pubescens (downy birch) bark tar”, Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, 7, 1, 47–58.

Guarino C. & Sciarrillo R. 2004- “Carbonized seeds in a protohistoric house: results of hearth and house experiments”, Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, 13, 1, 65–70.

Hayek E.W.H., Krenmayr P., Lohninger H., Jordis U., Moxhe W. & Sauter F. 1990- “Identification of Archaeological and Recent Wood Tar Pitches Using Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry and Pattern Recognition”, Analytical Chemistry, 62, 2038–2043.

Margaritis E. &Jones M.K. 2006- “Beyond cereals: crop processing and Vitis vinifera L. Ethnography, experiment and charred grape remains from Hellenistic Greece”, Journal of Archaeological Science, 33, 6, 784–805.

Mitkidou S., Dimitrakoudi E., Urem-Kotsou D., Papadopoulou D., Kotsakis K., Stratis J.A. & Stephanidou-Stephanatou I. 2008- “Organic residue analysis of Neolithic pottery from North Greece”, Microchimica Acta, 493–498.

Pecci A., Cau Ontiveros M.Á., Valdambrini C. & Inserra F. 2013- “Understanding residues of oil production: chemical analyses of floors in traditional mills”, Journal of Archaeological Science, 40, 2, 883–893.

Pecci A., Barba L. & Ortiz A. 2017- “Chemical Residues as Anthropic Activity Markers. Ethnoarchaeology, Experimental Archaeology and Archaeology of Food Production and Consumption”, Environmental Archaeology, 22, 4, 343-353.

Puchinger L., Sauter F., Leder S. & Varmuza K. 2007- “Studies in organic archaeometry VII – Differentiation of wood and bark pitches by pyrolysis capillary gas chromatography (PY-CGC)”, Annali di Chimica, 97, 7, 513–525.

Rageot M., Peche-Quilichini K. & Regert M. 2013- “Quand les Corses cherchaient du bouleau. Archéologie, histoire et chimie des colles autour de 1000 av. J.-C.”, Santari, 32, 32–37.

Romanus K., Baeten J., Poblome J., Accardo S., Degryse P., Jacobs P.A., de Vos D. & Waelkens M. 2009- “Wine and olive oil permeation in pitched and non-pitched ceramics: relation with results from archaeological amphorae from Sagalassos, Turkey”, Journal of Archaeological Science, 36, 3, 900–909.

Teodor E., Badea G., Alecu A., Calu L. & Radu G.L. 2014- “Interdisciplinary study on pottery experimentally impregnated with wine”, Chemical Papers, 68, 8, 1022–1029.

Van der Veen M. 2007- “Formation processes of desiccated and carbonized plant remains – the identification of routine practice”, Journal of Archaeological Science, 34, 6, 968–990.

Foodstuffs, Dairy products, Fermented beverages, Medicinal and Cosmetic products, Perfumes, Aromatic materials in the Mediterranean and West-European areas. This scientific notebook presents the bioarchaeology research programs of the Temos laboratory (CNRS, UMR 9016).

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