Do you like to barbecue? Well, you’re not the first. In fact, the Greeks beat us all by more than 3,000 years. Recently, archaeologist Julie Hruby of Dartmouth College presented her research on how exactly the ancient Greeks used their barbecues at the annual conference of the Archaeological Institute of America in Chicago. Hruby’s research focused on her work with ancient souvlaki trays and frying pans from Mycenaean sites in Greece.
In recent years, everyday objects such as cooking pots have often been thrown away in architectural locations in favor of more glamorous objects such as vases or jewelry. But Hruby decided to take a second look at the trays and frying pans to solve some long-standing archaeological mysteries. For a start, scientists knew that the souvlaki trays somehow contained skewers with roasts. However, they did not know whether the cooks placed the meat directly on the trays over the fire or whether the trays were intended for hot coals with meat placed on top. And the frying pans, probably for baking bread, had one smooth side and one side with small holes. What would be best for baking?
To solve these problems, Hruby turned to an unlikely source: ceramist Connie Podleski of the Oregon College of Art and Craft. Hruby and Podleski mixed their own American clay to imitate the rough, gritty Mycenaean clay. They then made new souvlaki trays and frying pans to the exact specifications of the originals and tested them over an open fire.
The results of this ingenious experiment answered all the scientists’ questions. When meat skewers were placed on the trays directly over the fire, the thickness of the tray resulted in uncooked souvlaki. A much tastier result occurred when hot coals were shovelled onto the trays and the skewers were placed directly above. According to Hruby, the trays were essentially portable barbecue sites, “possibly used during Mycenaean picnics. With the frying pans, Hruby found that baking bread was much easier on the smooth sides of the utensils than on the side marked with holes. This led her to believe that the rough surface could have served as a primitive non-stick pan, as the holes also lead to a more even distribution of the oil on the cooking surface.