What Our Food Provides Us: How the Human Diet Progresses Archaeological Analysis

Food, as a necessity for human survival, has always been the basis of any society. Archaeology that focuses on the human diet illuminates interactions between society and nature, and therefore explores their subsequent functionality. Diet is so expansive, that an array of findings can provide archaeologists with the tools for analysis. For example, earthenware found at the Lajia site in northwestern China preserved the earliest record of noodle preparation. The bowl was stuck in a floodplain of clay sediment, and radiocarbon dating suggests that these noodles were from four thousand years ago.

The millet noodles appear to be almost paper thin, with a diameter of 0.3 centimeters. They were around 50 centimeters long, with a yellow tint. They reflect many of today’s modern Chinese noodle dishes.

After analysing and attempting to determine the taxa of the noodles, archaeologists found that grass plants – specifically millet – were the basis of Chinese ingredients, and these noodles in particular. The Lajia site, found in the Loess Plateau region of China, was a semi-arid region, which is an efficient climate for millet to grow, solidifying the idea that millet was used to make noodles and other cuisine around this time period.


With the millet noodles we see how a relatively small artifact can be used to specify how the environment was utilized by the people inhabiting it. In contrast, we can also look at how a larger archaeological dig site, containing a multitude of plant matter, can shine a light on past practices. The Bronze Age Farm at Black Patch in southern England provided archaeologists with over fifty pounds of wheat, barley, and other plants. The plants were preserved through the charring of the storage pit, prompting many to dub the site as “England’s Pompeii”. 

Along with pounds of edible plants, rich textiles, bronze, wooden, and ceramic artifacts were excavated at the Black Patch Farm site. The findings were uniquely preserved with a combination of waterlogging and charring.

The findings showed an increase importance of wheat, which provides insight into the progression of farming techniques, specifically the newfound reliance on winter-sown crops. Some archaeologists have also speculated that the charring of these storage pits represent the tradition of burning the deceased, and their home, after death.

It’s important to note, however, that these findings are not representative of a wide ranged understanding. In fact, both of these instances are only reflective of a specific, single period in time. The most efficient form of archaeological diet analysis is the study of food traces in the stomach, and fecal matter. Unfortunately, it’s apparent that popular science outlets tend to portray the more glamorous discoveries (like the world’s oldest noodle!) than the discoveries that provide the most accurate and relevant information on diet. Understanding bias in our sources of information – and understanding that the two examples discussed here are only a small piece in a larger puzzle – will allow us to garner a more accurate picture of our past. 

Additional Reading

Swaminathan, N. (2014, August 11). Meadowcroft Rockshelter. Archaeology. Retrieved from https://www.archaeology.org/issues/150-features/americans/2369-peopling-the-americas-meadowcroft-rockshelter

Schaeffer, C. (1978). THE BISON DRIVE OF THE BLACKFEET INDIANS. Plains Anthropologist, 23(82), 243-248. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25667511


Image Sources

[Noodles]. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://images.mentalfloss.com/sites/default/files/styles/insert_main_wide_image/public/noodles_0.jpg

[Black Patch Farm]. (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.archaeology.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/mustfarmfeatured.jpg



Renfrew, Colin and Paul Bahn (2015) Archaeology Essentials. 3rd edition. Thames & Hudson, New York.

Lu, H., Yang, X., Ye, M., Liu, K., Xia, Z., Ren, X., . . . Tung-Sheng, L. (13 October 2005). Culinary archaeology: Millet noodles in Late Neolithic China. Nature, 437, 967-968. doi: 10.1038/437967a

Cunliffe, B. (2006). Iron Age Communities in Britain: An Account of England, Scotland and Wales from the Seventh Century BC until the Roman Conquest. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=v1Zkio7jluAC&pg=PA35&lpg=PA35&dq=bronze+age+farm+at+black+patch+England+wheat&source=bl&ots=iB5vgxi32M&sig=yjFdWZNAvUXX6lhY–kStS3fnwk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiB76nKlbnWAhVD04MKHUzmDUIQ6AEIZzAN#v=onepage&q=bronze%20age%20farm%20at%20black%20patch%20England%20wheat&f=false

Bruck, J. (2002). Bronze Age Landscapes: Tradition and Transformation. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=_IwgDgAAQBAJ&pg=PT315&lpg=PT315&dq=bronze+age+black+patch+farm&source=bl&ots=2uxexgp-Pw&sig=i_TBht5poZgiR5c3-cbroI1Lchk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwia1d-7nrnWAhVI6YMKHTrtDIYQ6AEINzAF#v=onepage&q=black%20patch&f=false

Keys, D. (2016, July 13). Discovery of vast treasure trove of fine textiles shows importance of fashion to Bronze Age Britons. Independent. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/archaeology/vast-treasure-trove-of-fine-textiles-shows-importance-of-fashion-to-bronze-age-britons-a7135786.html

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No Interest in War: The Harappan Civilization

Some ancient civilizations were renowned for their warfare techniques—the Chinese’s scale being evident with the discovery of the Terra Cotta Army, the Persians emerging as a military power under Cyrus the Great, and the Romans being famed for their discipline and innovation on the battle field. One civilization, however, might not have engaged in warfare at all, archaeologists speculate.

Depiction of the Harappan civilization, located in the Indus River Valley

This is the Harappan civilization that inhabited the Indus River valley some 5,000 years ago. Surviving for about two millennia, it is believed that this society survived without any major wars or conflicts, and is known to be one of the only ancient cities to do so. Archaeologists have never uncovered any signs of ash (indicating whether the city had ever been burned), weaponry, or even of an army itself.

What makes this especially profound is the prominence of army monuments in civilizations surrounding the Indus River Valley, such as those found in Mesopotamia. However, the fact that the Harappan society shows no traces of an army might be contingent on the fact that these were fairly migrant people. Through the analyzation of teeth found in burial grounds in Mohenjo-Daro (the largest city of the Harappan people), archaeologists discovered that many drank water from a source other than the immediate region, suggesting many people came and went from the city often.

Then what were the Harappan people so focused on besides warfare? Artifacts show that these people were very involved in the art of writing and even science. Markings on pottery show the transition from crude inscriptions to an extensive alphabet, and Harappan cities showcase a firm understanding of engineering, with urban areas built along strict grids and the standardization of bricks essential in the building of their structures.

Signs of character usage on a Harappan seal

So what was the Harappan’s demise, then, if it didn’t engage itself in warfare? Many speculate that rather than a quintessential “fall” within the society, it simply turned into a more nomadic group. This could have been caused by the arrival of the Aryan people in the area. Others suggest that the Harappan people simply shifted away from an urban, mercantile society, and instead adopted a more agricultural lifestyle, eventually merging with the Vedic culture of South Asia.

Whether or not this society was actually void of warfare is not entirely for certain, but through the use of culture history, more truths are slowly being discovered.

Additional reading:










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Why are Feathers So Important in the Aztec Culture: Piecing Together the Puzzle

Different civilizations place higher value on various materials and therefore we cannot make assumptions about past cultures based on today’s value system.  While some civilizations from the past deem precious metals like gold, silver, and copper to be objects of higher worth, others find value in a different variety of items.  Archaeologists have determined for example that the Aztecs held feathers as one of nature’s most valuable gifts, as birds appeared to be very important in their culture.  The Aztecs would use brightly colored feathers in headdresses worn by their leaders, including the great Aztec emperor Moctezuma.  Great time and care went into the making of any object involving feathers, as feather-workers spent weeks creating intricate designs to be used in battle shields and adornments, important buildings, cloaks and costumes of the nobles, and religious ceremonies.

The great feathered headdress, supposedly worn by the Aztec emperor Moctezuma himself.  This headdress was believed to be given to Hernan Cortez by the emperor, which is how it presumably ended up in Europe.

The importance of feathers appears to stem from the many references of birds in Aztec culture.  One of the first references to birds in Aztec culture is in the story of how the Aztecs choose the area in which they would build the capital to their future empire.  Legend states that the grand Aztec capital Tenochtitlan was chosen because the first Aztecs wandered and searched for a long time till they witnessed a bird perched on a cactus eating a snake, which is now pictured on the current day Mexican Flag.  The bird in this story is seen in a position of power, as it sits on top of the cactus, peering over the land.  There are also many references to feathers and birds in the Aztec religion.  The Aztecs held many rituals involving human sacrifices to the gods, but birds were also sacrificed during high religious ceremonies.  One of the most important gods in Aztec culture is named Huitzilopochtli, which translates to “Hummingbird of the Left.”  Huitzilopochtli was the god of the sun and of war and the Aztecs believed that warriors who lost their lives in battle would return as hummingbirds, which are characterized by their vibrant feathers.

The Aztec god Huitzilopochtli, generally pictured in artwork bearing the bright colors of the hummingbird and holding his serpent-like weapon.

Quetzalcoatl was one of the other most important gods in the Aztec religion and his name translates to “plumed” or “feathered serpent.” Quetzalcoatl was one of the Aztecs gods of creation, as well as the god of learning and wind.  Many of the important Aztec gods are associated with birds or feathers, leading us to believe that this is one of the reasons that the Aztecs held feathers as such valuable materials.  Only through the analysis of Aztec culture, especially their religion, can we attempt to see the true reason that the Aztecs valued bright feathers and understand that value of a material differs from culture to culture, but that does not make any specific culture more or less advanced because of what they value.


Additional Reading:

Aztec Headdresses. (n.d.). Retrieved September 19, 2017, from http://www.legendsandchronicles.com/ancient-civilizations/the-ancient-aztecs/aztec-headdresses/

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. (2016, July 08). Huitzilopochtli. Retrieved September 19, 2017, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Huitzilopochtli


Berdan, F. F. (2014). Aztec archaeology and ethnohistory. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Aztec Religious Ceremonies and Rituals. (2017, May 11). Retrieved September 19, 2017, from http://www.historyonthenet.com/aztec-religious-ceremonies-and-rituals/

Brittenham, C. (n.d.). Did the Maya and Aztecs take feathers for headdresses from birds other than quetzals? Retrieved September 19, 2017, from http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/home/did-the-maya-and-aztecs-take-feathers-for-headdresses-from-birds-other-than-quetzals-1

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. (2017, February 16). Aztec. Retrieved September 19, 2017, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Aztec

Aztecs Find a Home: The Eagle Has Landed | EDSITEment. (n.d.). Retrieved September 19, 2017, from https://edsitement.neh.gov/lesson-plan/aztecs-find-home-eagle-has-landed

Cartwright , M. (2013, August 1). Quetzalcoatl. Retrieved September 19, 2017, from http://www.citationmachine.net/apa/cite-a-website

Renfrew, C., & Bahn, P.G. (2015). Archaeology essentials: theories, methods, practice. London: Thames & Hudson.

Image Sources:

[Huitzilopochtli represented in the Borbonic Codex. He is carrying a snake like weapon called a Xiuhcoatl and a shield. On his head is a headdress imitating the head of a hummingbird]. (n.d.). Retrieved September 19, 2017, from http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/gods/god-of-the-month-huitzilopochtli

[Mexico Aztec Headdress]. (2012, April 28). Retrieved September 19, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-17878130

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Seriation of Astronomical Observatories

It seems that humanity has always been fascinated by the night sky. Across the globe, archaeologists have found records of people analyzing the movements of the heavens and using those movements to measure time and to signify important cultural events. While the specific reasons for the study of the cosmos has changed over time, one thing has remained constant: the use of observatories. While the methods and materials used for building observatories have changed, their overall appearance has changed very little.

A prime example of this is El Caracol, found in the ancient Mayan city of Chichén Iztá. This stone observatory was built on the southern side of the city and was rebuilt several times. Archaeologists believe the final version was erected between 900-1000 A.D. The observatory was used to track the movement of the sun and certain planets. The observers seemed to be especially interested in the movement of Venus, as an entire floor of the two-story observatory is dedicated to tracking its movement. The observatory also allowed the Mayans to tell when the sun reached its zenith. This mattered to the Mayans, as the rainy season starts right after the sun reaches its zenith in May. Knowing when the sun reached this point allowed the Mayans to make sure their fields were ready for the rain. They also viewed the planets as embodiments of the gods, so their movement was of religious significance to the Mayans. While the observatory was built using ancient methods and is comprised entirely of stone, its overall structure is similar to that of modern observatories, with a domed roof that allowed for viewing at all angles, and its positioning at a high point in the landscape.

El Caracol, or “The Snail”, an observatory found in the ancient city of Chichén Iztá.

As time went on, observatories shifted from having religious and agricultural significance to being more heavily based in scientific discovery. This is the case for the Vassar College Observatory. Completed in 1865, the observatory was used as both the home and observatory of Maria Mitchell, the first professional female astronomer. The observatory was used to study telescopic moments, along with the planets Jupiter and Saturn. Unlike El Caracol, the Vassar College Observatory is comprised of mostly brick, with the dome being made of metal. The observatory also has a telescope, a commodity not invented until 1608.

Vassar College Observatory, located at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Even in modern day, observatories continue to maintain the same basic appearance. However, they have changed quite dramatically in the scope of both their reach and potential. One example of this is the Mount Graham Observatory. Built to research exoplanets and to analyze the dust around stars. While maintaining a similar shape to both El Caracol and the Vassar College Observatory, it not only has a cube shaped top rather than a dome, but it has two telescopes rather than one.

The Mount Graham Observatory, located on Mount Graham in Arizona.


Miller, Julia. The Caracol, or Observatory of Chichén Itzá. Yucatan Today. Accessed September 17th, 2017. http://yucatantoday.com/caracol-or-observatory-chichen-itza/?lang=en.

Maria Mitchell. Vassar Encyclopedia. Accessed September 17th, 2017. http://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/faculty/original-faculty/maria-mitchell1.html

Vassar College Observatory. National Park Service. Accessed September 17th, 2017. https://www.nps.gov/places/vassar-college-observatory.htm

Beal, Tom. Huge Mount Graham telescope finally paying off. The Arizona Daily Sun.  Accessed September 17th, 2017. http://azdailysun.com/huge-mount-graham-telescope-finally-paying-off/article_116733a4-fdd4-592f-a256-cb9c5f1bcbeb.html

Picture sources:

Wikimedia Commons. Accessed September 17th, 2017. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vassar_College_Observatory.jpg

EL Caracol, The Observatory of Chichén Itzá. Atlas Obscura. Accessed September 17th, 2017. http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/el-caracol-chichen-itza-mexico

Beal, Tom. Huge Mount Graham telescope finally paying off. The Arizona Daily Sun.  Accessed September 17th, 2017. http://azdailysun.com/huge-mount-graham-telescope-finally-paying-off/article_116733a4-fdd4-592f-a256-cb9c5f1bcbeb.html



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Clonycavan and Old Croghan Man


When thinking about archeology and the preservation of organic materials one usually thinks of the archeological sites in dry environments or cold environment. Thinking of preserved bodies many think first of the mummies of ancient Egypt or of the Ötzi, the frozen iceman found in the Alps. However, another major location for the preservation of organic materials in archeology is wetland sites, especially the peat bogs in Europe.


Bog bodies refer to the corpses that have been naturally mummified found in these bogs. Two such bog bodies were found in 2003 in Ireland less than three months apart. Based on carbon testing the partial corpses found twenty-five miles from each other had lived and died during the height of the Celtic Iron Age (archive.archeology.org). The Clonycavan Man, a corpse that was only recovered from the torso up, was shown to have lived between 392 and 201 B.C. Whilst the Old Croghan Man, a torso with only the arms, was dated to have lived between 362 and 175 B.C. Both corpses had been of young, healthy men who had been violently killed, the Clonycavan Man having been struck by a stone ax, splitting his skull, and the Old Croghan Man having been decapitated, stabbed and cut in half. Many of the other wounds on their bodies imply that they had been tortured before their death, possibly as a part of a ritual, especially as both corpses had their nipples pinched and cut off (irisharcheology.ie).


Archeologists studied these two corpses, learning not only about the deaths of these two men, but learning about the lives they had lived. There were few signs of physical labor on the men, and there was much evidence found of the Old Croghan Man’s wealth and higher status.

The nails, hair and stomach of the Old Croghan Man were so well preserved in the bog that researchers were able to conclude that due to his well-kept fingernails, lack of calluses and good diet he had been an “individual of relatively high status” (Archeology Essentials).


The keeper of Irish Antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland, Eamonn P. Kelly, used the information learned about the lives and deaths of these men to develop new insights on the Celtic culture of Ireland in the Iron Age. Kelly interpreted these brutal, almost ritualistic killings, of two well-to-do men as the killings of “failed kings or failed candidates for kingship,” as the loss of their nipples would have been a sign of no longer being fit for kingship, whose bodies had been an offering to a Celtic goddess (archive.archeology.org). The analysis of these bog bodies was able to give more of an understanding of the culture that lived over 2000 years ago, presenting beliefs and rituals of the time through the similar wounds on the bodies, connecting two separate archeological finds from wetland sites to one another.

The Clonycavan Man

The Old Croghan Man






Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G. Bahn. Archaeology Essentials: theories, methods, practice. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2015.


Picture Sources:


The Bog Bodies of the Iron Age: The Clonycavan Man and the Old Croghan Man (Belen Gimenez)


Further Readings:


The Bog Bodies of the Iron Age: The Clonycavan Man and the Old Croghan Man (Belen Gimenez)

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