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Back to the future

München, 03/17/2016

In a project funded by an ERC Starting Grant, Philipp Stockhammer will assess the impact of Late Bronze Age trading networks on the diet and cuisine of the Eastern Mediterranean, and points to parallels with modern globalization.

Photo: D. Johannes. Source: E. Dziobek et al. 1994. “ Die Gräber des Vezirs User-Amun Theben Nr. 61 und 131“ (Plate 20). Verlag Philipp von Zabern, Mainz am Rhein

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Archaeologist Philipp Stockhammer is studying a remote age in the hope of gaining a better understanding of the present. His research focuses on developments in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age. In the second millennium BCE, this area saw the emergence of large polities, which eventually formed an integrated system, held together by a network of unprecedentedly close economic and cultural contacts. Mobility was remarkably high. People travelled to and fro between Greece, Cyprus and the Levant in pursuit of trading opportunities, and many merchants settled in commercial centers in foreign lands. “It is an early example of a globalized society,” he says. He is especially interested in the cultural consequences of these interactions, and believes that they can help us understand our current phase of globalization: “The historical perspective allows us to explore the dynamics of globalization processes.”

In his latest project, FoodTransforms, for which he has received one of the coveted Starting Grants awarded to promising young researchers by the European Research Council, Stockhammer wants to elucidate the relationships between cross-cultural contacts and social change by tracing alterations in diet and eating practices.

The project’s primary goal is to characterize the impact of cross-cultural influences on the lives of individuals and the development of whole societies by tracing how the cuisines of the Eastern Mediterranean evolved in the Late Bronze Age. This approach can reveal both the changes wrought by intercultural contacts and the dynamics of the transformation. In general, Stockhammer says, “such contacts produce a certain degree of homogenization, which however finds diverse local expression. For example, in the second millennium BCE, olive oil was in daily use throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, albeit in different contexts in different regions.” In addition to being consumed as a foodstuff, it was used in perfumes and to embalm the dead. In the Southern Levant it also seems to have found ritual use during religious ceremonies.

Stockhammer plans to study not only how exotic products were adopted and utilized, but also to trace their dissemination along trade routes. This allows him to ask whether inhabitants of trading centers were generally more receptive to novelties or particular population groups more likely to use unfamiliar foods than others. In this context, he cites an interesting finding from the time of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II who died in the 13th century BCE. When his mummified corpse was examined, the investigators found peppercorns among the bindings. “That is a clear indication of the prestige attached to pepper at the time,” Stockhammer points out. Cinnamon and nutmeg also first reached the Eastern Mediterranean from East and Southeast Asia during the Late Bronze Age. In order to trace their distribution and discover how they were used, he is collaborating with natural scientists. Using novel methods, they will analyze pottery vessels used for cooking, storage or transport and containers placed as offerings in graves for chemical signatures that are characteristic of specific foodstuffs. In addition, samples of dental calculus recovered from human remains will be examined. Such tests now make it possible to identify proteins, fats and even genomic DNA from the plants and animals consumed by people who lived 3500 years ago, and thus enable archaeologists to reconstruct their diets.

Stockhammer’s current project, entitled BEFIM (, seeks to elucidate the function and significance of goods imported from the Mediterranean area by the Early Celts of Southwestern Germany, Switzerland and Eastern France in the Early Iron Age, based on the chemical fingerprints of foodstuffs, and he is obviously fascinated by the opportunities that these techniques open up for archaeologists like himself. “The laboratory techniques available for the analysis of organic residues allow us to pose entirely new questions. It is even possible to determine what someone who lived thousands of years ago actually ate, more or less regularly, over the course of a lifetime.”

Stockhammer did his doctoral research in Greece in 2001, and his thesis was based on an analysis of the pottery recovered from the site of the Mycenaean citadel in Tiryns. Since then he has focused on the Eastern Mediterranean and explored the significance of transcultural influences in several different projects. Over the years he has built up a valuable network of contacts with local archaeologists. Now modern molecular biological methods promise to provide wholly novel insights into life in the Ancient World. He, therefore, believes that the proposal he submitted to the ERC was successful in this highly competitive context above all because it tackles a topical issue using the right combination of state-of-the-art methods and of interpretative expertise. “The ERC project brings the diverse strands of my previous research together,” he explains. “The Starting Grant is a wonderful award, and gives me the opportunity to implement a research strategy that has incredible potential,” he adds. 

“The scope for career development that LMU offers me is absolutely unique,” says Philipp Stockhammer. For LMU now offers a tenure-track option to researchers who have received ERC Starting Grants and are willing to carry out their projects in Munich. In July, Stockhammer will become the first holder of the new professorship in Prehistoric Archaeology with special focus on the Eastern Mediterranean in the Institute for Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology and the Archaeology of the Roman Provinces.

Philipp Stockhammer currently works in the Institute for Prehistory, Early History and Near Eastern Archaeology at Heidelberg University. But he will soon move to LMU, bringing his ERC Starting Grant with him. For LMU now offers a tenure-track option to researchers who have received ERC Starting Grants and are willing to carry out their projects in Munich. And in July, Stockhammer will become the first holder of the new professorship in Prehistoric Archaeology with special focus on the Eastern Mediterranean in the Institute for Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology and the Archaeology of the Roman Provinces. “The scope for career development that LMU offers me is absolutely unique,” he says, having collaborated with LMU researchers on various projects over the years. “LMU covers a particularly broad spectrum of the established fields in Classical and Ancient Studies, and its research strength in these areas provides the ideal context for my work,” he adds. In addition, he hopes that the issues addressed by his ERC project will help him to bridge the divides between Pre- and Protohistory, Classical Archaeology, Near Eastern Archaeology and Egyptology.

Indeed, he expects that the project will produce results of especially wide-ranging significance for Egyptology. This is because inscriptions in Hieratic Egyptian found on storage vessels for various foodstuffs cannot yet be fully interpreted. Analyses of chemical residues can identify their original contents and – he hopes – will boost efforts to fully decipher the script. “It may well result in a significant extension of the known vocabulary relating to food items, and this could have wider repercussions for the legibility of other types of text written in Hieratic script.” The tests will also reveal what each vessel type was actually used for. Israeli researchers have already used such methods to demonstrate that, during the 13th and 14th centuries BCE, nutmeg was burnt in dishes, like incense, in Canaan. “In other words, nutmeg was first used as a hallucinogenic drug and not as a spice to improve the taste of otherwise bland broths.” This discovery raises a host of other questions: What role did the drug play in strengthening trade relations, and when did the esoteric substance become an item in the local diet? Stockhammer’s broader hypothesis is that cross-cultural influences which first came into play in the Late Bronze Age played a crucial role in shaping the Mediterranean diet as we now know it. In his view, over the long term, trade played a more important role in this process than climatic or other environmental conditions. “Mediterranean cuisine is a product of this early burst of globalization, and has been subject to change and adaptation ever since.”

His ERC project concentrates on the period after about 1600 BCE, during which societies in the Eastern Mediterranean became ever more closely connected. This process of integration had reached its peak by approximately 1300 BCE. “Around 1250 we see the first signs of crisis and upheaval, and by 1200 the whole system had collapsed. The palaces of Mycenaean Greece were destroyed, important trading cities in the Levant went up in flames, writing systems fell into disuse, and crafts and trade in many parts of the Eastern Mediterranean went into decline. This marks the onset of a period in which, in many areas, large-scale political systems ceased to exist. It will be interesting to see whether this had an effect on nutrition and diet, he says. In particular, however, he finds the parallels between this early era of globalization and the intercultural interactions that characterize our own times. “We can only experience globalization as a synchronic phenomenon, an unfolding process whose outcome remains unknown. As a historian and archaeologist, however, I can observe developments diachronically. The historical perspective thus provides an opportunity to understand the dynamics of the rise, decline and fall of societies through time, and can yield important insights into some of the urgent problems that we now face.”