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.