As my trowel raked against the dirt piled on the plaster floor, I stopped for probably the 50th time that day and cursed. I put down my trowel, reached for a plastic bag, then started picking through the soft, light-brown rubble in front of me. Tiny fish bones were everywhere, scattered by my troweling. I had to pick the minuscule things up one by one and put them in the bone artifact bag. By now I could easily identify the bones of most terrestrial animals, including humans, but the fish bones were out of my league. Diligently I bent over and put my cheek almost in the dirt itself, so I wouldn’t miss the tiniest vertebrae. This was a highly unflattering position, and the site workmen made sure that I noticed that they noticed. “Shu?” I queried in Arabic, and they turned around and went back to shoveling.
I have been in the desert for a couple of weeks now, digging and surveying with a team of archaeologists excavating historic pearling centers on the northern coast of Qatar. As a professional archaeologist and Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley, I tend to encounter food at its least appetizing–as the discarded remains of past peoples. While I do not specialize in the study of food as intensively as zooarchaeologists (animal remains specialists) or paleobotanists (plant remains specialists), it is an immensely important part of understanding people in the past. These coastal sites are absolutely packed with fish bones, especially around tabun ovens, the clay-lined fire pits that are present in every house. These tabuns hold a wealth of information for us, from giving us a potential date for the site in the carbonized remains of fuel, to seasonality of the occupation in the cooked plant remains, to the relative health of the animals that were being killed for food.
All of this doesn’t really make picking up tiny fish bones in the midday sun in the desert less tedious, and a less vigilant (or less guilt-ridden or possibly more sane) archaeologist might not pick up every last tiny, semi-translucent fragment of somebody’s dinner. I didn’t know it then, but I would have my reward later that night. One of the team members has started to assemble a reference collection of Gulf fish bones, and this meant that she was eating her way through the selection available at the local fish market. She selects the fish, photographs it, carefully guts and prepares the fish for cooking, cleans, collects and dries every tiny bone, then curates them in boxes labelled with their taxonomic name. Shark, bream, hamoor and dozens more had been carefully selected, cleaned, and served up to hungry archaeologists, who made note of their relative tastiness and ease of cooking. That night she made a big pot of lovely fish curry and I went back for seconds. Twice.
Food is a passionate expression of ourselves. Seemingly insignificant remains hold a wealth of information about people in the past, and about ourselves. Sifting through the ashy remains of an ancient dinner, finding a discarded 18th century fork, examining the worn edge of an obsidian blade all evoke in us a sense of wonder and of intimacy with the past. Understanding what food was available and what food meant to people in the past brings us ever closer to appreciating the incredible creativity and adaptability present in these people and in ourselves. I probably wouldn’t have ever considered eating the slightly more esoteric looking fish that were available, and some of them are very tasty!
As the climate changes and as fuel sources diminish and diversify we need to draw upon this creativity and adaptability for survival. People in the past ate an incredible array of foods, prepared in interesting and sometimes unlikely ways. If we can draw out this past knowledge, we have more resources to confront modern problems relating to disease, sustainability, and poverty. While this is not the only motivation for archaeologists to study the past, it is one that is becoming increasingly important. Writing about ancient food today can only improve our chances to survive a future where the cornucopian optimism of yesteryear brought by the mechanization of food production is diminishing in the face of population growth and dwindling resources. So we go to far-flung places (or sometimes your back yard!) to collect, catalog, and discuss these things from our shared human history. And sometimes we’re lucky enough to do so with a belly full of tasty fish curry.
This post was invited by GOOD Magazine’s Food Editor, Nicola Twilley as part of a celebratory blog carnival, Food for Thinkers: An Online Festival of Food and Writing. GOOD Magazine is re-launching their food section and there are a lot of really great submissions, including one from our favorite Space Archaeologist, Alice Gorman!