At the table in the ancient Orient - Project „PEKULI“: Interview with the project leader Dr. Shira Gur-Arieh

The Lebanese Beqa Plain is a key archaeological site of the Bronze and Iron Age Eastern Mediterranean. Archaeologist Dr. Shira Gur-Arieh is investigating how dietary practices changed from the Middle Bronze Age to the Persian period from about 1800 to 400 BC – by examining tartar remains. --- Please leave your feedback in a comment below the article!

Kiefer eines Individuums aus Kamid el-Loz mit Zahnstein

Jaw of an Individual from Kamid el-Loz with calculus

 Stefanie Eisenmann & Angela Mötsch

Ms. Gur-Arieh, how did you come up with your research of the food culture of the old Orient based on fossil tartar?

Dr. Shira Gur-Arieh, Projektleiterin PEKULI

Dr. Shira Gur-Arieh, Project leader PEKULI and Postdoctoral fellow, Institute for Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archeology and Provincial Roman Archeology, Ludwig Maximilians University Munich, Germany


I’ve always been interested in how people lived in the past and especially studying the mundane aspects of their lives. For instance, what did they eat? How did they cook? And what can it teach us about people as individuals but also societies? All these everyday actions taken by individuals are strongly rooted in our cultural background, so we can use them to learn about cultural exchange and human mobility.

When Philipp Stockhammer, professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at LMU Munich, offered me to work on the dental calculus from Tell Kamid el-Loz, it connected to my personal experience and how as a foreigner in Germany, I was looking for familiar products from my country in the Lebanese and Syrian grocery shops, but on the other hand when I went home, I missed the German dishes I have learned to love. It definitely highlighted the importance of food culture to our personal identity, and how lucky we are today that we can easily transport it. It made me think about what kinds of food were people transporting in the past, what can it tell us about them, and how can we make it more visible?
I work on microscopic remains of plants that are associated with human use of plants in the past. I look at plant leftovers that got trapped in places where they have better chances of survival. One such place is the dental calculus – literally ‘stone tooth’ –, which is a deposit that regularly forms in our mouth by the petrifaction of oral bacteria, trapping in the process microscopic pieces of what we consume, such as food and drinks. Recently, dental calculus has been proven to be an outstanding tool for the reconstruction of prehistoric diet, but it has hardly been applied to the study of Bronze and Iron Age sites and populations in the Ancient Near East. In my new project I hope to better understand, by applying an interdisciplinary scientific method, the diversity and dynamics of individual human nutrition in the Ancient Near East.

What is fascinating about the ancient Lebanon?

Tell Kamid el-Loz, is located in the Beqa Plain in Lebanon on the central trade axis between the southern Levant and the early urban centers of Syria. The settlement on the Tell flourished during the Middle and Late Bronze Age (ca. 2000-1200 BC), as attested by the temples and palaces uncovered during excavation. It lost its importance in the Iron Age (1200-600 B.C.), the most important find in the subsequent Persian period (600-330 B.C.) is a large cemetery. These burials had previously been investigated to identify population genetic developments, biological relationships between individuals, their mobility and diseases. Considering its location on an important crossroad, the richness of finds from the site, and the specific bioarchaeological information available for the different burials, my analysis, which has yet been applied, will allow us to compare individuals' diets in a resolution that is usually impossible.

What finding particularly surprised you and why?

During the first stage of my research I’ve been working on studying starch from a reference collection I prepared from typical edible plants found in Lebanon. I’ve been quite impressed to discover how much some of the wild edible plants are still important in the local cuisine, and I’m very curious to see if I’ll be able to identify any of them in the tartar of the ancient inhabitants of the tell.

Due to the Corona pandemic, you were probably unable to complete your project as planned. Are there any innovative elements that the Corona conditions brought to your research field?

Although I had to delay the start of my project by almost a year due to the corona pandemic, I’ve discovered that with today's technology we can do a lot almost anywhere using virtual technologies. If this pandemic has emphasized anything for us, it is the importance of building a strong network of collaborations which allows us to exchange ideas, support each other, and lend a hand when someone needs it.

Zahnsteinentnahme an der Universität Göttingen

Sampling of dental calculus at Göttingen University

Stefanie Eisenmann & Angela Mötsch

Frau im Labor

Starch and phytoliths extraction from dental calculus sample


Kichererbsen-Stärkekörner unter dem Mikroskop in planpolarisiertem Licht bei x400 Vergrößerung.

Chickpea starch granules under the microscope in plane-polarized light at x400 magnification. © Gur-Arieh


Phytolithen aus mehrzelligen Blütenständen von Gräsern in planpolarisiertem Licht bei x200 Vergrößerung.

Multi-cell inflorescence grass phytoliths in plane-polarized light at x200 magnification.


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