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The original domestic goddess; Do today's recipes originate from 4,000 year-old home cooking? Andrew Davies finds out.

What did the original Greek domestic goddess have on the hob to titillate her husband's tastebuds when he came home from a hard day's work?

And what would she rustle up for a dinner party with friends, an impromptu snack for a night in front the mural, or even a quick cocktail?

A groundbreaking - and groundexcavating - new exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery sheds some light on what would have been on the menu for the Mycenaean or Minoan family 4,000 years ago.

For the first time, archaeologists are piecing together not only what ancient Crete or Mycenae's answer to Nigella Lawson was cooking, but also the type of drinks she and her family would be mixing - and even the beauty preparations she might be applying to her skin or the herbal remedies she was preparing.

Like many archaeological exhibitions, Minoans and Mycenaeans: Flavours of their Time contains a large number of pots, amphorae and other vessels, not to mention the odd skeleton or two.

But it also presents a graphic picture of the diet and customs of the race from this part of the ancient Greek world, nicknamed the cradle of civilization.

Dr Yiannis Tzedakis, director general of antiquities for the Greek government and archaeologist, explains: 'This is not an archaeological exhibition as we usually do them. It's an exhibition based on the result of state-of-the-art enquiries into artefacts, both pots and skeletons.' The exhibition - exclusive to Birmingham after showing in Athens and Chicago - reveals the finds of excavations by Dr Tzedakis and colleague Dr Holley Martlew of some 15 sites around Crete, where the Minoans were based in the Bronze age (3000 to 1100BC), ancient Mycenae and other sites on the Greek mainland where the Mycenaeans had outposts.

The excavations also called on the help of Birmingham University-based medical historian Robert Arnold, who identified individual medical conditions like pressure aneurisms and practices such as trepanning.

Shards of pottery from some of the pots were sent away for analysis, and put through a mass spectrometer.

The machine identified the various chemicals present in traces of food absorbed by the porous pots, then food scientists analysed the chemical traces and pieced together which foods they would have come from.

The food scientists were able to identify not only that a pot was once used to cook a casserole, but also that the dish contained sheep or goat meat, onion, olive oil and wine.

Splinters of bone were also analysed, along with different protein types found in the collagen of the bones, revealing that it came from either meat, fish or vegetable.

'This is pioneering work. This sort of technique is usually only used for environmental science projects and forensic science work - it's far too expensive for most archaeologists to use. It's the first time anything like this has been done,' says Dr Martlew.

The groundbreaking methods unearthed a host of exciting discoveries.

'We found these people had a far better diet - even poor people were found to eat a lot of meat - which was contrary to what was believed,' Dr Martlew adds.

Among the other discoveries were oil of iris used to make a beauty lotion (even today, iris oil is the most expensive substance in the manufacture of perfumes and cosmetics), as well as a building next to a metal smelting site that turned out to be a herbal apothecary rather than a kitchen.

They also discovered that the ancient Minoans and Mycenaeans were making retsina, a primitive ouzo, cassis, and even beer and mead - traces of pine resin, camphor, barley and honey were found in some of the drinking vessels. 'We even found some drinking vessels in tombs - so they would not be vessels used several times - where there were traces of honey mead and resinated wine. These people were mixing cocktails,' says Dr Martlew. 'We were making discoveries - we did not know what we were going to find, and what we did find surprised us all the time.

'We had a 90 per cent success rate with the pots, which is quite something when this pottery had been in the ground 4,000 years, with the effects of rain and acids in the soil.

'Everywhere we worked, we were coming up trumps.

'The important thing is we're discovering things about the ancient world which no one could find out in any other way.'

Minoans and Mycenaeans: Flavours of their Time is running at the Gas Hall, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, from today until January 5, 2003. There is also a large selection of interactive exhibits for children. Entry is pounds 3, concessions pounds 2; family tickets available.

A taste of history: Minoan food and drink

La Parisienne Light white Cretan wine (not retsina) Mint leaves Honey Optional: a ripe pear You will need a Kylix/stall stemmed glass Method: Crush some mint leaves with a tiny bit of honey and put in the bottom of a goblet.

Optional: include a bit of pulp from a ripe pear. Fill glass with (chilled) white wine. Garnish with a sprig of mint. Optional: a segment of pear on a toothpick, laid across the top of the glass.

This recipe is a product of the imagination, based on ingredients known in Minoan Crete and ideas of what a sophisticated woman like the one in the fresco called 'La Parisienne', which was found at Knossos (Late Minoan 1370 - 1340BC), might enjoy drinking when she attended cocktail parties at the palace.

Mycenaean Stew 4 1 /2lb of wild boar (a leg of pork will do) 1 /2 cup of olive oil (more if necessary) 2lb of onions 2lb of yellow lentils (split peas) 2 cloves of garlic 2 bay leaves Plenty of wine Seasoning and cumin to taste Method: Cut the meat into serving portions. Put the oil, the onions (roughly chopped) and the bay leaves into the pot. Brown the meat in this mixture and then add the garlic (finely chopped). When the browning is complete pour in lots of wine to cover the meat completely.

Add the seasoning and cumin, and cook very slowly on a low heat for three hours.


Clockwise from main - a tomb from the Mindan cemetery; a clay jar dated 1200BC; an animal figurine believed to be from 1800BC; Dr Holley Martlew, Greek pre-history specialist, holding a stirrup jar
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jul 13, 2002
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