Lean, Mean, Cooking Machines: Relationships between Pottery Technology and Cuisine

Hello again! Sorry for the hiatus – Thanksgiving was a busy time for me and I was unable to keep up here on Hot for Pots, but I am back and making up for lost time with a longer- and nerdier-than-usual blog post. For that I say “you’re welcome,” and also “I’m sorry.”

To illustrate my point today, I’m going to start off with a brief personal story. I live in a small apartment with very little cabinet space, which limits the number of kitchen gadgets that I can have because I simply do not have room for any more stuff in my kitchen. My blender must reside on my (also limited) counter top, so a food processor is out of the question. My small George Foreman grill must live in a nearby closet, meaning no room for a full-size electric griddle. A stand mixer would be right out!

Right out meme2

The Holy Stand Mixer remains elusive, much like my graphic design skills.

My lack of cooking technologies affects the types of dishes I can prepare. If I want to make a Mary Berry-worthy Genoese sponge, which requires eggs to be mechanically whipped for ten minutes, I would be out of luck (unless I want to kill my arm, which I don’t). Making pesto in a regular blender rather than a food processor is an ordeal almost not worth the effort. Therefore, the types of foods and dishes I can make are limited by the cooking technologies I possess.

I hope my kitchen issue illustrates the constraints that technology can impose on cooking and cuisine. Certain types of cooking and certain dishes are not possible in the absence of specific technologies. To reiterate what I’ve said in prior posts, a society’s lack of a particular technology does not mean that they are inferior to others. Several factors influence technological development, including social, geographic, and environmental factors that can restrict access to materials and resources available for use. Furthermore, although society and culture are always changing, sometimes technological change can be a bit conservative – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! This isn’t always true, but technological innovation is often spurred by a newly developed need or challenge. This means there is a close relationship between cuisine and cooking technology; think of it as a constant feedback loop between the two. New technology allows for diversification and expansion of cooking techniques and recipes, while changes in diet and cuisine can also drive technological innovation.

birchbark basket

Traditional Ojibwe birchbark vessel            (image source)

In the Upper Great Lakes, ceramic cooking technology was adopted much later than in other parts of the Midwest (approximately 800 years later). Pottery manufacture is very labor intensive, and it is rather difficult in cold, wet regions because it requires time to air dry (until it is leather-hard) and then fire. The periods of time in which pottery manufacture would be possible is therefore rather limited.  Deciding that pottery manufacture was not worth their time, Upper Great Lakes groups continued to make cooking bags and baskets out of birchbark and/or animal skins, which can be placed directly over fire (as long as it is full to the top with liquid, these vessels won’t burn), or people heated rocks in the fire and transferred them into the organic vessels, heating the contents from within.

However, something around 200 BC changed this, spurring local indigenous groups to adopt pottery. Explanations vary, from an increase in acorn processing (Skibo et al. 2009), which would be more efficient using ceramic vessels, to a new ceremonial complex centered around the processing of fish in ceramic vessels (Taché and Craig 2015). We have evidence of both nut lipids and chemical signatures of aquatic resources in the earliest pottery at the Cloudman site (ca. AD 100), and no evidence for any earlier occupation of the site, so my results do not contribute to the pottery adoption debate.

In other regions of Eastern North America, scholars have found a connection between certain ceramic properties and shifts in diet. Braun (1983) found that in the Midsouth a greater reliance on starchy foods during the Late Woodland period prompted a change in two ceramic properties: thickness and temper size. Thickness affects the heat conductivity of a vessel, meaning that thinner vessels can conduct heat better, allowing for faster, more intensive cooking.

grit temper

Excellent cross section of a piece of pottery showing grit (aka crushed rock) temper common in Woodland pottery (image source)

Temper is material added to clay during the initial manufacturing stage to make the clay more workable and less subject to warping while the clay dries. However, clever potters throughout history discovered that varying temper size and density can also impact the performance of fired pottery during cooking. Smaller temper particles increase thermal shock resistance, meaning that a pottery vessel is less likely to break when placed over a fire, an important property for a cooking pot! Braun (1983) found that in addition to thinner pottery walls, Late Woodland societies were also choosing to make temper particles smaller, a decision that may have been a conscious choice to improve thermal shock resistance of ceramic cooking vessels. Hart (2012) found the same trend in temper size among the Iroquois of New York, which corresponded with the increased use of maize (corn).


Dried beans must be soaked overnight before they are boiled, or boiled for a very long time before becoming edible (image source)

So why the subtle yet significant changes in pottery manufacture? Starchy foods often require intensive heating to be made palatable and digestible (think of how long you have to cook brown and dried beans). By making small changes to the design and composition of cooking pots, these early societies enhanced the performance of these vessels, making them more durable and effective for more intense and/or long-term heating, in order to more efficiently process starchy foods.

At the Cloudman site, I was unable to definitively demonstrate any significant change in vessel thickness (long story), but there WAS a change in temper particle size – a very significant one that occurred between the early Late Woodland (ca. AD 900-1000) and the late Late Woodland (ca. AD 1200-1300) occupations of the site. This change was statistically significant – that’s nerd talk for LEGIT.

So, what does this mean? Were the Cloudman residents suddenly cooking and consuming more starchy foods on a daily basis, thereby altering the way they made their pottery to make them more durable? You’ll have to wait for a future blog to find out!


References Cited and Additional Reading

Braun, David P.
1983   Pots as Tools. In Archaeological Hammers and Theories, edited by J.A. Moore
and A.S. Keene, pp. 107-134. Academic Press, New York.

Hart, John P.
2012   Pottery Wall Thinning as a Consequence of Increased Maize Processing: A Case
Study from Central New York. Journal of Archaeological Science 39:3470-3474.

Schiffer, Michael B. and James M. Skibo
1987   Theory and Experiment in the Study of Technological Change. Current
               Anthropology 28(5):595-622.

1997   The Explanation of Artifact Variability. American Antiquity 62(1):27-50.

Skibo, James M., Mary E. Malainey and Eric C. Drake
2009   Stone Boiling, Fire-Cracked Rock and Nut Oil: Exploring the Origins of Pottery
Making on Grand Island. The Wisconsin Archeologist 90(1-2):47-64.

Taché, Karine and Oliver E. Craig
2015   Cooperative Harvesting of Aquatic Resources and the Beginning of Pottery
Production in North-Easter North America. Antiquity 89(343):177-190.


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