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Delwen Samuel - Research interests

The archaeology of plant-based foods

Microscopy of residues: My study of ancient Egyptian preserved food remains by microscopy has established that the microstructure of cereal foods is excellent evidence for ancient processing methods. I am experienced in the use of scanning electron microscopy, histochemistry and low power light microscopy. The histological and anatomical analysis of archaeobotanical remains, both embedded in foodstuffs and recovered from archaeological sediments, is essential to establish ancient food ingredients. Recently, my microscopic analysis of supposed bread from the Greco-Roman site of  Karanis, Egypt established that this material is actually olive pressings.

Archaeological starch: Since 1990 I have had a particular interest in ancient starch, a subject which is increasingly visible in the archaeological literature. I have an extensive knowledge of modern starch physico-chemistry, essential for understanding ancient starch, and am experienced in microscopy techniques for starch analysis. I maintain close contacts with starch scientists and am involved in collaborative projects to study ancient starch and food remains. Archaeological starch is one of my key areas of research.

Food preparation: A major area of interest is the role of food in the past, to which I have always applied an integrated, multi-disciplinary approach. By first establishing ingredients and their ancient processing technologies, I examine the place of prepared foods in ancient economies and social relations. For example, I have been able to suggest the extent to which food processing resources were shared or were maintained amongst independent households within ancient Egypt villages. From archaeological remains at the site of Amarna, I have helped to establish that households produced their own food independently of the state, although state provision of bread and beer played a major role in the economy.

Experimental archaeology is also critical to my work. It is only possible through a detailed understanding of the archaeological evidence and a strong grasp of relevant ethnographic studies. I use actual ancient tools recovered from excavations where possible, precise replicas of installations and emplacements and authentic modern cereals.

Charred food remains are a recent interest which has grown out of my extensive experience with desiccated food remains. I am working with colleagues to develop methods for the microscopic identification of charred cereal foods.

Ethnoarchaeology plays a key role in my research. In collaboration with colleagues, I have carried out extensive investigations on the cultivation and processing of the hulled wheats surviving in northern Turkey in the 1980s. I have observed bread baking and other cereal processing techniques at Amarna’s local Egyptian village.


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