Ancient Greeks Used Portable Grills at Their Picnics

The ancient Mycenaeans have a reputation as palace-builders and warriors, but they were also quite sophisticated cooks.

The ancient Mycenaeans have a reputation as palace-builders and warriors, but they were also quite sophisticated cooks. More than 3,000 years ago, they used portable grill pits to make souvlaki and non-stick pans to make bread, new cooking experiments suggest.

The Mycenaean civilization, which was the backdrop for Homer's "Odyssey" and "Iliad," thrived in Greece during the late Bronze Age from around 1700 B.C. until the society mysteriously collapsed around 1200 B.C. The Mycenaeans left behind amazing palaces and gold-littered tombs at sites like Pylos and Mycenae, but in these places, archaeologists also have found less glamorous artifacts, such as souvlaki trays and griddles made from gritty clays.

It wasn't clear how these two types of pans were used, said Julie Hruby of Dartmouth College, presenting her research at the Archaeological Institute of America's annual meeting here on Saturday (Jan. 4). [The 7 Most Mysterious Archaeological Finds on Earth]

"We don't have any recipes," Hruby told LiveScience. "What we do have are tablets that talk about provisions for feasts, so we have some idea of what the ingredients might have been, but in terms of understanding how people cooked, the cooking pots are really our best bet."

The souvlaki trays were rectangular ceramic pans that sat underneath skewers of meat. Scientists weren't sure whether these trays would have been placed directly over a fire, catching fat drippings from the meat, or if the pans would have held hot coals like a portable barbeque pit. The round griddles, meanwhile, had one smooth side and one side covered with tiny holes, and archaeologists have debated which side would have been facing up during cooking.

To solve these culinary mysteries, Hruby and ceramicist Connie Podleski, of the Oregon College of Art and Craft, mixed American clays to mimic Mycenaean clay and created two griddles and two souvlaki trays in the ancient style. With their replica coarsewares, they tried to cook meat and bread.

Hruby and Podleski found that the souvlaki trays were too thick to transfer heat when placed over a fire pit, resulting in a pretty raw meal; placing the coals inside the tray was a much more effective cooking method.

"We should probably envision these as portable cooking devices - perhaps used during Mycenaean picnics," Hruby said.

As for the griddles, bread was more likely to stick when it was cooked on the smooth side of the pan. The holes, however, seemed to be an ancient non-sticking technology, ensuring that oil spread quite evenly over the griddle.

Lowly cooking pots were often overlooked, or even thrown out, during early excavations at Mycenaean sites in the 20th century, but researchers are starting to pay more attention to these vessels to glean a full picture of ancient lifestyles.

As for who was using the souvlaki trays and griddles, Hruby says it was likely chefs cooking for the Mycenaean ruling class.

"They're coming from elite structures, but I doubt very much that the elites were doing their own cooking," Hruby told LiveScience. "There are cooks mentioned in the Linear B [a Mycenaean syllabic script] record who have that as a profession - that's their job - so we should envision professional cooks using these."

Original article on LiveScience.

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Cooking experiments suggest that Mycenaean souvlaki trays would have been portable.

Can You Detect a Forgery?

Thousands of viewers were fooled over the years by the "relics of Joan of Arc," shown here, which turned out to include, among other things, an Egyptian mummified cat bone. Here are other examples of historical fakes that have been paired with their authentic counterparts. The artifacts are featured in The Royal Ontario Museum exhibit "Fakes & Forgeries: Yesterday and Today," which runs through April 4, 2010 before traveling to other museums across Canada.

Trilobite Fossil: FAKE

Fossils of trilobites, which were 550- to 250 million-year-old undersea animals related to modern lobsters, are susceptible to forgery because collectors covet them so much. While Morocco is known for its superbly preserved trilobite fossils, the country also has a thriving cottage industry that takes less-than-perfect fossils, such as the one pictured here, and enhances them to appear more attractive to unsuspecting buyers.   In this case, the object is lopsided in a way that cannot be explained by natural distortion of the rock. A real A. briareus has 18 thoracic segments (appearing as horizontal lines on the fossil). This one has 13 to 15, that don't even match up from one side to the other.

Morocco, Middle Cambrian Period, 505 million years old

Trilobite Fossil: AUTHENTIC

This specimen is from a large slab with numerous complete to nearly complete individuals, which adds credibility to the piece's authenticity. This fossil was purchased from a reputable collector and then subsequently gifted to The Royal Ontario Museum by the Louise Hawley Stone Charitable Trust. All of its elements, such as the thoracic segments, match up properly, yet display the irregularities inherent in such ancient, natural objects.   Historians are particularly concerned about trilobite forgeries, since swindlers often take valuable scientific artifacts and carve or otherwise manipulate them. Like restoration of antique furniture, this can greatly decrease any genuine value that the item might hold.

Morocco, Middle Cambrian Period, 505 million years old

Relief of a Pharaoh: FAKE

Forgeries of Egyptian antiquities often deceive individuals who don't know what to look for, simply because eager buyers haven't been properly educated. Fake ancient Egyptian statues, figurines and reliefs, like this one, have flooded the market as a result.   The sandstone on this forgery is tinted with a reddish pigment to give the appearance of old age. The artist also misrepresented the crown of Upper Egypt, which is supposed to cover the nape of the pharaoh's neck. The carving of the facial features is additionally very rough, leading to what the museum calls a "crude and contrived representation."

20th Century

Relief of a Pharaoh: AUTHENTIC

According to The Royal Ontario Museum, this artifact possesses all of the facial features one would expect to be associated with an image of Montuhotep. This impression is based on other images of him and what is known about his, and the period's, history.   For example, a flat band representing eye paint outlines his eye, as would be expected. It extends to form a cosmetic line, another typical feature. The inner corner of his eye dips downward, and his eyebrow appears flat. His thick lips protrude, and his ear is well modeled. Traces of red paint still remain on his face. The carving is "crisp" and "assured," resulting in "an organic cohesiveness of the face," the Canadian museum’s experts conclude.

Egypt, 11th Dynasty, 2040-1963 B.C.

Gold Nugget: FAKE

Based on visual appearance alone, an observer could easily be fooled into thinking this object is an actual gold nugget, but buyer beware: Gold should always be handled, since real gold usually weighs much more than forgeries. For example, an authentic gold nugget of equivalent size would weigh at least twice as much as the piece pictured here.   Phony gold usually is made up of other metals. In this case, the nugget is natural copper that's been coated in gold. Pyrite, otherwise known as "fool's gold," was aptly named. Over the years, and particularly during the Gold Rush era of the 19th century, this naturally forming iron mineral indeed tricked many a buyer into thinking it was the real "bling" deal.

Gold Nuggets: AUTHENTIC

These genuine gold nuggets are from what is known as a "placer deposit." The description signifies that the gold was concentrated by mechanical means, which in this case was by the action of water in a stream or river. The movement of the water carried lighter minerals away, leaving behind a concentration of heavy desirable minerals, such as these real gold nuggets.   Note the slightly rounded edges on the nuggets. Those are due to the natural tumbling action of water, which provided the gold nuggets with a Mother Nature-made polish. Experts can usually tell the difference between gold rounded by machines as opposed to formed by such water body activity.

Goddess Figurine: FAKE

A telltale sign that this is a modern forgery is a casting seam, which is a thin, raised line where two halves of a reusable mold were joined. Swindlers know that dealers look for this, so here the maker tried to file down the casting seams along the arms and legs of the figure.   According to The Royal Ontario Museum, the workmanship of this piece is, in general, very poor, with traces of metal "burrs" left behind from the casting between her arms and body and between her shins. The figure's facial features are described as "ill- defined," and there is no suggestion of her linen tunic, as would be expected. The golden color of the modern bronze is even beginning to appear through the object's bogus dark green patina.

20th Century

Goddess Figurine: AUTHENTIC

In contrast to its fake counterpart, this authentic figure of the goddess Neith was made in a single mold with no casting seams or file marks along the sides. Experts at the Canadian museum say that the "figure is carefully modeled with fine detailing of the facial features, the linen garment and the jewelry."

Egypt, Late 5th to 3rd Century B.C.

Woman Figurine: FAKE

Experts can tell that the base and the figure of this piece were molded together rather than separately, a technology that appeared much later than the supposed date of the piece, around 250 B.C. According to The Royal Ontario Museum, "the folds of the clothing are very lightly modeled and have no life, and the face is very poorly executed."   Credit must go to the forgers for attempting to add many elements that one would expect to see, such as encrusted dirt and patches of white slip. But experts at the museum believe "the surface looks artificial" and that "the clay is too brownish."

Late 19th Century

Woman Figurine: AUTHENTIC

When paired up against the forgery, this figurine's facial features are more delicate. According to The Royal Ontario Museum, "her hair, with traces of red paint, is arranged in the correct 'melon' style." The cloth over the figurine's right shoulder "flows naturally across the chest and left arm."   The woman's right hand, which is outlined beneath the clothing, looks just as it should, as does the finely rendered folds of her garment that fall vertically. As for the fake Tanagra figurine, clay color and texture are key to spotting forgeries. Here, the light orange-brown clay, just visible in patches, is the true color one would expect in this kind of object.

Greece, Circa 250-225 B.C.


This urn at first puzzled experts. However, sometimes visual and other non-technical examinations are not enough to determine an artifact's authenticity. Thermoluminescence dating, a technique applied to pottery and other ceramic materials, was used in this case. Using this method, researchers determined that this urn was a fake made during modern times.   Another way to discern the fakes from the real deals, according to The Royal Ontario Museum, is to examine how the design motifs were used. For example, they say "a forger might copy the feathers from one genuine item, the tunic from another and the pedestal from yet another. Though each part seems authentic, the forgers combined them together in ways that don't make artistic sense."

Mexico, Early 20th Century


This urn was also tested using thermoluminescence, which measures when an object was fired in a kiln. In contrast to its fake "twin," this artifact dates to about 1,500 years ago. The figure depicts a seated male elite wearing ear spools and a necklace. Urns like this have been found in the niches of Zapotec tombs and were likely filled with offerings for the dead. On rare occasions, archaeologists have found the burnt remains of plants and animal bones inside of the containers.

Mexico, 200-500 A.D.

Chinese Mirror: FAKE

Guesswork sometimes comes into play when forgers create their pieces. Counterfeiters may not fully understand the details, or it could be that the photo or model they're working from is incomplete.   In this instance, the characters on the mirror are unclear. The slanting lines around the edge are also very different from what one would expect with an original. The museum acquired the mirror in error from China in the early 1900s, when the study of these type of artifacts and their history was in its infancy.

China, Qing Dynasty - Republic, Late 19th - Early 20th Century

Chinese Mirror: AUTHENTIC

This mirror's careful casting and inscriptions are typical for the Western Han period about 2,000 year ago, according to The Royal Ontario Museum, which has improved upon its forgery detection processes over the years. Without documented history, it can be difficult for even experts to spot genuine artifacts from fakes. Sometimes forgeries slip into the market, not by their manufacturers, but by swindlers or even unknowing owners who acquire the object at a later date. For example, the "relics of Joan of Arc," recently determined to be a fake, were once legitimate objects in a pharmaceutical operation that were then later passed off as the famous French saint's remains.

China, Western Han Dynasty, 206 B.C.-24 A.D.

Jade Cicada: FAKE?

It is hard to call this beautifully detailed and recently made artifact a fake, since the artist may have just been inspired by more ancient pieces. For collectors -- even those at museums -- pieces such as this one present a dilemma, since there is no way of knowing if it was made with the intention to deceive. The cicada piece may have been created to serve as an attractive little amulet or decorative object paying homage to older styles.   Music and book publishers, as well as other producers of art in its many forms, grapple with similar issues. While deceit may be clear with a fake designer watch or handbag passed off as the real thing, works of art are less easy to judge.

China, Qing Dynasty, Late 19th - Early 20th Century

Jade Cicada: AUTHENTIC

This jade cicada probably came from an Eastern Han Dynasty burial, according to The Royal Ontario Museum. This object would have been placed on the tongue of the deceased person prior to being buried. Jade was believed to stop the body from decaying, and the cicada represented immortality and resurrection. While genuine versus fake is a bit trickier to judge for this particular item, intended forgeries for this, and other objects, continue to circulate. "For as long as art has been created and products have been made and distributed, the underworld of forgery and counterfeiting has existed," said Michael Elsen, Chief Legal Officer for Microsoft Canada, which is helping to present the "Fakes & Forgeries: Yesterday and Today" exhibit. "Lifting the veil on this black market activity confirms that although times and related technologies have changed, people are still as likely today to let the Trojan Horse through the gate as they were thousands of years ago," he added.

China, Han Dynasty, 206 B.C.-220 A.D.