The Flavors Archaeobotany Forgot

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Journal of Anthropological Archaeology


1. Introduction: The valuation of flavorful plants

Staple crops have long been a focus of archaeobotanical studies of fields and gardens worldwide. For example, abundant studies present the domestication, dissemination, diversification, and management of wheat and barley across Eurasia (Kislev, 1984; Abbo et al., 2006; Brandolini et al., 2016) and maize and chenopods in the Americas (Pearsall, 2004; Piperno and Pearsall, 1998; Pickersgill, 1989; Wilkes, 1989). While these plants became the central ingredients of many cuisines and their tending served as the basis for fundamental patterns in agricultural land use and labor, there are many plants, often called condiments or flavorings, that played important roles as spices and that, while not considered domesticated, were important elements in human landscapes that have largely been overlooked and undertheorized, except for within the works of a few scholars (e.g., Bye, 1981; Sarpaki, 2001; Heiss and Hansson, 2014). The first author of this paper (Hastorf) was inspired to think about such plants when she was fortunate to collect purslane (Portulaca sp.) from a woman’s kitchen garden in the Abruzzo province of eastern Italy when she was working to create a Bronze age feast for the Sangro Valley Archaeological Project, directed by Susan Kane and Amalia Faustoferri, in 2012. As Hastorf and her host were discussing long-used plant ingredients that would have been available to Bronze Age Mediterranean cooks, they went to her San Giovani garden to collect ‘wild weeds’ that would make bland wheatbased meals flavorful. As they walked through the host’s herbs and vegetables behind her home, purslane was hugging the corners and open ground between rows of vegetables. The discussion turned to how, while all agreed it was considered a weed, the woman had left it to grow as she enjoyed collecting it for its taste and texture, providing a tangy crunch to a cooked, bland meal. The ancestors of that purslane had been co-habiting with mint, basil, carrots, onions and people for millennia on the Italic peninsula. It grows in tended kitchen gardens near homes but also out in the broader landscape.


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