Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Grilling the Mycenaean Way ~ Experiments with a Souvlaki Tray

Last week when perusing the merchants at the Pennsic War, I came upon a potter, Anne L. Carenbauer of Nonna's Mugs and Jugs, who had made a reproduction of a Mycenaean cooking tray of a type archaeologists speculate was used for cooking the ancient versions of souvlaki or kebabs. I've been interested in finding one to experiment with for a while and asked her the price. She replied that she had made a second one which had cracked when she used it, so she was uncomfortable selling it to me, but that I was welcome to borrow it and try using it if I would report back to her the results. I scuttled back to camp clutching my prize....

The tray prepared and ready to go.
I am experienced with open fire cookery in clay so I soaked the tray for about a half hour as I would with other crockery, prior to warming it slowly by the fire. I had previously started a good fire which steadily produced coals throughout the cooking time. I made a flat place in the fire pit for it to sit, however in retrospect I might have been better off having it out on the grass beside the pit, as it would have been subjected to less heat from the coal making process. We had gotten some chicken and beef for the communal dinner that night but I also bought some lamb for a first round of experimentation before the main event, just in case there was a terrible failure. FYI Pennsic shoppers, the lamb came from the Cooper's store and was from a local farm.

The meat on one bowing skewer.
To prepare the lamb, I cut it up into small pieces, no more that an inch square, and marinated it in a mixture of cider vinegar, red wine, salt and pepper for about a half hour. Then I put the morsels on bamboo skewers and shoveled coals into the tray. The first thing I discovered after I had put them on was that one skewer is not strong enough to support all that meat so I immediately pulled them off and inserted an additional one. Having two skewers also created stability so that the skewer of meat did not turn when it was placed over the coals. The meat cooked faster than I had expected. Although I didn't time it, I would guesstimate that it cooked in about 10 minutes. It was crispy but not burned and had a pleasant, slightly smoky flavor. 

A skewer of cooked lamb.
Aren't you hungry?
The cooking continued until the lamb was all done and then I turned my attentions to the beef, which I prepared in the same manner. Between meats, I stirred the coals around and with a blowpipe blew out the ash (there wasn't very much), then I added more coals from the feeder fire. The beef cooked well, but part way through I heard the telltale 'pink' of cracking redware, then as I cooked a large crack opened up on the left side of the tray. I finished the beef and again cleaned out the tray and added more coals to cook the chicken. This gave me a chance to see what was going on, and as it turned out, the crack did not go all the way across the tray. The chicken was cooked and the meat enjoyed by all the diners. 

In Minoans and Mycenaeans: Flavours of Their Time by Yannis Tzedakis and Holley Martlew, the authors make the point that these trays were made of unfired ceramic which presumably would fire a certain amount as they were used. I don't know if that would give them more 'flexibility' but it would be interesting to try cooking in an unfired tray. Alternatively, the trays could have simply been used until it became unusable and discarded for a new one. Even if the end had broken completely off this tray, I could have cooked four skewers of meat without a problem.

Besides the book mentioned above, interested readers should seek out the work of Dr. Julie Hruby of Dartmouth College. She has written extensively on Mycenaean foodways and performed cooking experiments with reproduction cookware. You can find an article of her's online here, and I would direct your attention to her discussion of souvlaki trays on p. 154. She was featured in the Valley News in June and on NPR.

Note the size of the crack.
Trays need to have high enough sides to accommodate both the coals and the meat. The sides on this tray were about a centimeter too low and the meat ended up resting directly on the coals. It didn't burn it but you had to pick the hot coals off when you removed the meat. 

I think what happened with the cracking was the front of the tray flexed downwards as it became hotter. When it was cooking and at its hottest, the gap at the crack was at least a millimeter but after it had cooked the ceramic returned to its previous position. 

Other ceramic cookware which I have used for open fire cookery has had a clay body quite high in grog. This seems to help with thermal issues and might also make the piece somewhat more flexible. Its something to consider for future trays.  

I had a lot of fun cooking in this tray and am grateful for the chance to experiment with it. I'm very interested in trying an unfired tray to see what differences there might be, if any, in the behavior of the ceramic. Below are the rest of the photos we took that afternoon. 

Ready to receive meat!
After a second skewer as added.

More lamb on the coals.
Raking the coals with a stick.

Blowing the coals with the blowpipe.
Lamb cooking.

Note how crispy it is on the edges.

Cut up beef. It should be small.
Cooked beef.

Preparing to add chicken, note the crack.
Coals added for the chicken.

Chicken on the coals.
Chicken after a few minutes.

Detail of the crack.
Overall view of the tray.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Dressing the 1580s

I've been missing the sixteenth century quite a bit lately. Not that I am the least bit fed up with my Dura studies, there is still so much to learn there, but I've heard about a couple of 16th century in-persona events recently which have really made me pine for that time period. One thing holding me back from going though is a complete lack of wardrobe which set me looking at images of late 16th century dress in preparation for making more.

I've been looking especially at several engravings of captains from the early 1580s and today had some revelations about fit and construction, ones that were hiding from me in plain sight.

1. The doublet needs to be made first because all the rest of the ensemble hangs off of it.
2. The hose need to be built to suspend from the doublet. The attachment can't be an afterthought.
3. In the 1580s everything was a unit, no separates!
4. Everything is rather larger than one's actual body size. I've been making my outfits pretty close fitting previously, but because it is all attached to each other as a unit it needs to have more ease. The suit is built around one but I've been making things just too close.

It probably seems self evident but it felt like I had a revelation in terms of viewing the suit as a unit not separate garments.

These are the two captains who set me musing. Note how much underpinning both the doublet and Venetians have and that they are suspended as a unit. The legs of the Venetians are just the correct length, they do not droop, and they are interlined to hell and gone as evidenced by the fact that the sword belt is not being pressed in to the fabric very far. Ditto for the interlinings on the doublet. If we had x-ray glasses and could see their bodies inside, I think we would be surprised to see how slenderly built they were, not fat, but also not heavily muscled either. You wouldn't realize that from their outward appearance!

So those are my thoughts, now I need to get sewing!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Digging into Dura

The Dura Europos meta project would not have been possible before the 2004 publication of Simon James catalog of the military objects from Dura Europos*. This extremely valuable volume is the most in-depth look at Roman army equipment from a period which has been almost completely ignored by scholars. In addition to listing all of the finds of military related items, James does a very good job putting them in the context of similar items from elsewhere in the Empire.

The other invaluable resource for this project has been the Yale University Art Gallery eCatalogue of artifacts from Dura Europos. At present, there are 10,917 Durene items in the database including all of the entries in James’ catalog identified as being in the Yale collection.

I have been delighted to find that much new archaeological research from the countries of the former Yugoslavia, in particular Croatia and Serbia, is being published in a bilingual format. I would especially call out the research of Dr. Ivan Radman, curator of the National Archaeological Museum in Zagreb. He published his recent analysis of the Aquae Iasae belt fittings in an excellent English/Croatian article**. 

Another organizational tool I have found quite useful is Pinterest, which has allowed me to gather images from across the web of items similar to those from Dura, as well as photographs of the objects themselves from the Yale eCatalogue. I highly recommend this resource.

*James, Simon. Excavations at Dura-Europos 1928-1937, Final Report VII, The Arms and Armour and other Military Equipment. London: British Museum Press, 2004.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The "Pompeii of the Syrian Desert"

Dura Europos was founded in 303BCE by the Seleucid Empire on the Euphrates River and was formally laid out in a Hellenistic manner in the second century BCE. It later came under Parthian control and had a multicultural population with close ties to the city of Palmyra. The city was captured by Rome in 165CE but fell to a Sassanian siege in 256-257CE. It was abandoned, fell to ruin and was covered by the shifting sands of the desert until the early 20th century when it was excavated by a joint American and French team of archaeologists. In recent years excavations have begun again but are currently suspended due to the political unrest in the region. Like the Roman city of Pompeii buried by Mt. Vesuvius in 79CE, Dura Europos has proven to be a time capsule of life in a frontier town and Roman military garrison.

The Roman Army in Dura Europos
The number of military objects found at Dura Europos is remarkable. It is probably the largest coherent collection of Roman Army equipment from the early to mid-3rd century, the beginning of a time of great political upheaval which saw over 20 emperors in the span of 50 years.

The miles, or Roman soldier, of this period looked very different from his counterpart from the first century, the era commonly portrayed on film, television, and by reenactors. He no longer wore caliga (hobnailed sandals), a sleeveless tunic, or a military belt with a dangling apron, nor did he carry the gladius (short sword) or rectangular scutum (shield). Instead he wore a long sleeved tunic, long close-fitting trousers, closed boots, and carried a spatha (long sword) and oval scutum. Segmented iron armor was being discontinued in the period in favor of scale or mail. This remaking of the appearance of the Roman army has come to be called in scholarly circles the “Antonine Revolution,” and reflected the changes forced on the army by campaigns against the Parthians in the east and the Macromannic Wars along the Danubian frontier.

Dura Europos was garrisoned by the Cohors XX Palmyrenorum, a mounted unit of horsemen and dromedary troops which patrolled the borderlands adjacent to the Euphrates River. It was commanded by a tribune, perhaps the best known being Julius Terentius, who is shown in a fresco from the Temple of the Palmyrene Gods performing a sacrifice.

The time capsule nature of Dura with its rich artifacts of all kinds makes it an ideal venue for exploring Roman military life, daily life in the region, and the Roman economy in the middle of the 3rd century and although artifacts contain many items of strictly local interest, many of them, especially the military ones, have connections to other artifacts found across the empire. This is an era not well studied by many people; it lies between the age of Augustus and the early empire, precedes the "Crisis of the Third Century," and the well-studied late empire that led to the early middle ages.

Tragically, modern political unrest may finally destroy Dura-Europos. Wholesale looting on an “industrial scale” has occurred over the past two years at the site, making the study of Durene artifacts all the more relevant. It will be years before the full extent of this “Heritage catastrophe” is fully known.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Seeing what you're looking at

I have, for some months, had a rotating series of military engravings by DeGheyn and Goltzius as the screensaver and desktop on my work computer. This has afforded me the chance to study the costume and weapons depicted in great detail and I've come to the conclusion that I need to re-examine any previous assumptions I might have had regarding military dress of the 1580s and 90s.

To this end I decided start with the most basic item of male dress in the period, the shirt. We have owned a copy of Patterns of fashion 4 : the cut and construction of linen shirts, smocks, neckwear, headwear and accessories for men and women c.1540-1660, conceived & illustrated by Janet Arnold. Quite Specific Media Group, c2008, pretty much since it was published but aside from browsing through it, I hadn't sat down to really study the garments. When I finally go around to taking a look, I found several shirts which were spot on in terms of dating (as much as one can actually date garments of this period) and of roughly similar dimensions. In addition there is a shirt of Gustavus Adolphus which can firmly dated to 1627. Although it is more recent, it has some similarities to shirts being worn by military men of 40 years earlier, especially in size and ornamentation of the collar and cuffs which could be worn simply turned over the doublet collar and sleeve cuffs. They are small enough though for a separate ruff and wrist ruffles to be pinned on over them.

Needless to say I have been reflecting quite a bit about Luke's shirt supply - how many did he own - where did he procure them from, etc., etc. When he was a boy and up though the time he went into service, his Mother, sisters and his Mother's maids would have made his shirts. While in Norreys' service he would probably have gotten some of his shirts as part of his livery with the remainder coming from home. Then later after he was on his own with his own men and military establishment he probably would hire a seamstress in London to make him the bulk of his shirts. His Mother still makes him some shirts and they are beautiful examples of the needlewoman's art.

I decided to model the shirt I was going to make on numbers 10 and 12 from Patterns of Fashion. Both are from the last quarter of the 16th century and are of similar dimensions. The originals were quite long, shirts could be used for sleeping and receiving visitors in one's bedchamber and we have no way to know if these shirts solely served that purpose but had I made them to their actual length, I would be tripping over the bottoms. They also were wrapped about one's nether regions and did the office of jockey shirts of the day. I decided to shorten the shirt to my shins, still plenty long but not so much that I would fall on my face. They are both highly decorated and with reluctance I am dispensing with most if it, save for some bobbin lace edging around the collar, front opening, cuffs and hem. I feel like I want to get a good pattern worked out to fit me well before expending the time and effort on a highly ornamented shirt. I have cut out the fabric and will begin turning and sewing down all the edges. When that's done, I'll try to remember to post again with an update on my progress.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Tudor Resources

The British National Archives have a number of interesting Tudor period resources for the researcher. Today I turned up an online exhibition on Tudor Hackney: which includes wills, inventories, illustrations of local landmarks and maps.

They also have exhibits on Tudor Latin (both beginner and advanced): and

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Fun with primary sources

I'm a firm believer in using primary sources as much as possible. Secondary sources might be great for background and analysis but I want to hear what people are saying first hand. You can imagine my delight when the notice came across my email that the early modern English state papers have been scanned, put up online and that Harvard had just subscribed. Hallelujah! I've been using them in calendared form as an (almost) primary source for Luke's journal but now at the click of a mouse, I can view the actual letters in all their illegible, secretary hand glory.

I have started to dig through the correspondence of Luke's friend and mentor, Sir Roger Williams. His penmanship is atrocious (and was acknowledged as much at the time), a cursive secretary hand with "endearing" spelling, but in spite of all that he has spoken to me from across 428 years! How I wish I had a time machine and could dial up Alost in Flanders on Oct. 12, 1583. That day he wrote a letter to Sir Francis Walsingham which included this paragraph (spelling and punctuation modernized):

"...Some will say: These soldiers will grow too high-minded. If her Majesty has occasion to try her fate, pray God send her rather high minds than low. What occasion that France and others did fear our country men but the valour that Edward the Third, the Black Prince, Harry the Fifth, the Duke of Lancaster and Harry the Eighth with such gallant fellows that followed them? These had no low minds. If you look well to yourselves, never England was better furnished with gallant gentlemen and commons than at this present, and do think if we were put to it, we would show our fore-fathers' minds..."

No doubt in my mind as to just who was Shakespeare's model for the character of Fluellen in Henry V...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

"Brave Lord Willoughby"

Today is the "fifteenth day of July" and on this day in 1588, Peregrine Bertie, 13th Baron Willoughby de Eresby, won a victory over the Spanish near Breda in the Netherlands. It was immortalized in a popular ballad (see below) as well as a lute solo by John Dowland.

An excellent biography and reproduction of a painting, recently identified as Willoughby, may be found here.

My Lord Willoughbies Welcome Home
To the tune of Lord Willoughby
The fifteenth day of July, with glist'ning speare & shield,
A famous fight in Flanders was foughten in the field:
The most couragious officers were the English captains three,
But the bravest in the Battel was brave Lord Willoughby.

The next was Captain Norris a valiant man was he;
The other Captain Turner, that from field would never flee;
With fifteen hundred fighting men, alas, there was no more,
They fought with forty thousand then, upon that bloody shore.

"Stand to it, noble Pike-men, and look you round about;
And shoot you right, you Bow-men, and we will keep them out;
You Musquet and Calliver men, do you prove ture to me,
I'le be the foremost man in fight," says brave Lord Willoughby.

And then the bloody enemy they fiercely did assail,
They fought it out most furiously not doubting to prevail,
The wounded men on both sides fell most piteous for to see,
Yet nothing could the courage quell of brave Lord Willoughby.

For seven hours in all mens view the fight endured sore,
Until our men so feeeble grew that they could fingt no more,
And them upon dead horses full savourly they eat
And drank the puddle water, they could no better get.

And when they fed so freely, they kneeled on the ground,
And praised God devoutely for the courage they had found,
And beating up their colours the fight they did renew,
And turning toward the Spanyards, a thousand more they slew.

The sharp steel-pointed Arrows and Bullets thick did flye;
Then did our valiant Souldiers charge on most furiously,
Which made the Spaniards waver, they thought it best to flee,
They fear'd the stout behaviour of brave Lord Willoughby.

Then quoth the Spanish general, "Come let us march away,
I fear we shall be spoiled all, if that we longer stay,
for yonder comes Lord Willoughby, with courage fierce and fell:
He will not give one inch of way for all the Devils in Hell."

And then the fearful enemy was quickly put to flight,
Our men pursued courageously and rout their forces quite,
And at last they gave a shout, which echoed through the sky,
"God and St. George for England!" the conquerors did cry.

This news was brought to England will all the speed might be,
And then our gracious Queen was told of this same victory,
Oh, this is brave Lord Willoughby my love that ever won,
Of all the Lord of honour, tis he great deed hath done.

For souldiers that were maimed and wounded in the fray,
Our Queen allowed a pension of fifteen pence a day,
Besides all costs and charges she quit and set them free,
And this she did all for the sake of brave Lord Willoughby.

Then courage, noble English men, and never be dismaid,
If that we be but one to ten we will not be afraid
To fight with forraign Enemies, and set our Country free,
And thus I end the bloody bout of brave Lord Willoughby.

This text is drawn from Percy's, Reliquairies of English Poetry.

Willoughby is certainly someone Luke Knowlton would have known of, if not actually known personally.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Throughout this project I have had in my mind at least, if not actually on the record player, a soundtrack of Elizabethan music. It is heavy on the Dowland even though his First Book of Songs was not published until 1597, because I find his music endlessly fascinating. I have also been delving into the consort songs of William Byrd and it has become the joke in our house that we are the "Come to me Grief Forever" all the time channel.

I wanted to share some of the recordings I've been listening to in an ongoing series of posts called Soundtrack. The first album is L'Oiseau-Lyre 443 187-2, a reissue of a 1981 recording with Anthony Rooley and the Consort of Musicke, called William Byrd: Psalmes, Sonets & Songs. The collection has selections from Byrd's 1588, Psalmes, Sonets and songs of sadnes and pietie, made into Musicke of five parts. The book contained at the end the two funeral elegies for Sir Philip Sidney, the aforementioned "Come to me Grief Forever," and the ravishingly beautiful, "O that Most Rare Breast." The poetry of the latter at least having been penned by Sidney's dear friend Sir Edward Dyer. The CD ends with those two numbers as well and is well worth seeking out. It is out of print but copies do turn up on Amazon.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Writing Tables

Wednesday viij. February 1586/87. "...out to the stationer to have some notebooks made and then to Mr. Adams to have two sets of writing tables made, one with an almanac and the other without, both to have leather covers, and the covers to be made so they might keep out the damp better than that I did have of him last year..."

In this passage from his journal, Luke goes to the stationer and orders up some additional notebooks for his journal, accounts and other notes. He then goes to Franke Adams, one of several manufacturers in London in this period, and has him make some “writing tables.” He is not buying furniture, rather he is buying what was at the time (1587) fairly new technology for writing. The “tables” were coated paper/card stock that might be written on with ink, black lead (graphite) or silverpoint and then cleaned off and used again and again. Luke might write his journal entries directly into a notebook, but more often he would use the tables as a temporary scratch pad and then make a fair copy later in his notebooks.

Peter Stallybrass has written an excellent article on the subject which appeared in the Shakespeare Quarterly. The writing tables were quite small, about the size of a deck of cards, like the example at Houghton Library of Harvard University. They were bound with a multi-year almanac, perfect for the businessman on the go, and made up of paper/card stock coated with gesso and shellac. I would expect that the stock itself would need to be substantial because gesso is by its nature very prone to cracking and flaking on a flexible surface, but that might not be the case. I expect also it would want to have quite a high glue content to really bind it all together. The tables came with erasing instructions in some of the earlier editions and the owner is warned not to allow the just cleaned tables to rest against each other when they are wet, suggesting a tendency towards stickiness.

I plan to conduct some experiments to determine the composition of the coating and I will be writing to Professor Stallybrass for any advice he might have on their construction. I will also need to get over to Houghton and take a look at the example there. Then I will have to make some and see how they actually work.

Stallybrass, Peter; Chartier, Roger; Mowery, j. Franklin; Wolfe, Heather. “Hamlets Tables and the Technology of Writing in Renaissance England,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Winter, 2004), pp. 379-419.