Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving

With the Thanksgiving Holiday once again upon us TWIPA returns this week with a post focused on one of everyone’s favorite topics, food. Foodways, or subsistence strategies, have long been a topic of interest and study of anthropologist and archaeologists. By quantifying the number and types of food remains, archaeologists can determine the percentage of different types of plants and animals harvested.

The State Museum of PA’s Section of Archaeology receives a steady flow of artifact collections as a result of Cultural Resource Management project surveys and excavations.  A recently submitted project involving highway improvements in Montgomery and Philadelphia Counties recorded four dozen, mostly 19th Century domestic sites. As a part of the project’s phase II workplan, diet and consumer behavior were identified as potential research issues for two of the sites that were considered potentially significant.

typical project area view, with orange flags marking shovel test pit locations

 In his report to PennDoT, Gary Coppock, working at the time for Archaeological & Historical Consultants, noted, “Archaeological remains can be analyzed for indications of the patterns of purchasing and consumption of goods by site occupants. Analysis of faunal remains may show the extent to which wild or domestic animals contributed to the diet, whether the animals were slaughtered at the site, and the economic and dietary value of meats consumed by site occupants (Coleman et al. 1984). Ceramic analyses can also contribute to the understanding of food consumption habits. A comparison of the relative frequency of flatware and hollowware forms, for example, has been used to infer the quality of meats used and in what form they were consumed (Kelso 1984)."

Excavation Unit profile from Woodhaven Road Extension Project

 Stepping back in time, the evolution of foodways began with small populations of Paleoindian hunters and gatherers exploiting an ice age landscape. Although the quantity of foods was relatively low, human population was also low and they did not need to develop special tools or organize a labor force to support themselves. The Archaic Period represents a plentiful time and human populations quickly grew by efficiently using all available resources. People developed many new tools to maximize their collection of food from the environment. As human populations increased, they began to exhaust the foods of the temperate forest and were forced to cultivate plants.

 Native American social organization began to change. Humans became more sedentary and eventually focused on farming to support increasing populations. Social structure changed to a tribal organization in order to better organize the labor force necessary for swidden agriculture of corn, beans and squash, often referred to as the Three Sisters. Both the nature and timing of the arrival of these domesticates into the Mid-Atlantic region continue to be intensively studied research topics in archaeology.
Each of the “Sisters” arrived in the Northeast at different points in time, with squash (Cucurbita pepo) being the earliest at between 5000 and 2500 years before present (Hart and Sidell 1997).  Next, corn, or maize, (Zea maize) becomes common in archaeological settings post-dating roughly 1200 B.P., or about A.D. 700 (Klein 2003).  And last to appear in the archaeological record is the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), at approximately A.D. 1300 (Hart and Scarry 1999). The application of C-14 and AMS techniques has proved to be indispensable tools for dating these and a wide variety of other botanical remains.

Requiring magnification, smaller evidence such as pollen, starch grains, and phytoliths can be used to identify plant species beyond the three typical domesticates. These types of analyses can not only help to identify dietary components of an archaeological site, but also aid more broadly in paleoenvironmental reconstruction. 

Along with zooarchaeological analysis of faunal remains, proteins recovered from the residue on cookware can be analyzed to identify groups of animal species and in some instances specific species. All these techniques aid the archaeologist in creating a more detailed picture of the past, in this case concerning just exactly what ingredients were used in preparation of a meal.

We hope this brief overview of foodways and food remains analysis wets your appetite for an enjoyable Thanksgiving meal with family and friends.


Coleman, Ellis C., Kevin W. Cunningham, Jim O’Connor, Wade P. Catts, and Jay F. Custer
1984     Phase III Data Recovery Excavations of the William M. Hawthorn Site (7NC-E-46), New Churchman’s Road, Christiana, New Castle County, Delaware. Delaware Department of Transportation Archaeological Series No. 28, Dover.

Coppock, Gary F.
2002    Phase I and II Archaeological Survey Report Woodhaven Road Extension Project (S.R. 0063 Sections A06 & A07) Montgomery and Philadelphia Counties, Pennsylvania  - prepared for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Engineering District 6-0

Hart, John P. and C. Margaret Scarry
1999   The Age of Common Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) In the Northeastern United States. American Antiquity 64 (4) 653- 658

Hart, John P. and Nancy Asch Sidell
1997   Additional Evidence for Early Curcurbit Use in the Northern Eastern Woodlands East of the Allegheny Front. American Antiquity 62 (3): 523-537

Kelso, William M.
1984    Kingsmill Plantation, 1617-1800: Archaeology of Country Life in Colonial Virginia. Academic Press, New York.

Klein, Michael
2003   Of Time and Three Rivers: Comments on Early and Middle Woodland Archaeology in Pennsylvania. In Foragers and Farmers of the Early and Middle Woodland Periods in Pennsylvania, edited by Paul A. Raber and Verna L. Cowin, pp. 117-129.  Recent Research in Pennsylvania Archaeology, No.3, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, PA

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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