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The Bronze Age: Cooking, Food & Nutrition

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

A lot changed in the Bronze Age, including the tools of daily life. In this lesson, we are going to see how bronze impacted cooking and food storage and check out the Bronze Age diet.

Bronze Age Cooking

When humans invented bronze, it led to the development of new weapons and strategies of war. But who cares about that? Let's focus on the one thing everyone really cares about: food. For many people of the time, the true significance of bronze came in the form of new tools that transformed their daily lives.

Bronze Age wine bucket
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The Bronze Age, the era in which bronze became available to a society, occurred at different times around the globe. The first cultures to enter a Bronze Age were those of West Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean coast, from roughly 3300-1200 BCE. Southern Europe followed around 3200 BCE, spreading the new technologies and ideas across the continent until roughly 600 BCE. In East Asia, China entered the Bronze Age first, starting around 2,000 BCE. In all of these places, some of the most important new tools to emerge were those used for cooking and eating. After all, who doesn't like food?

Cookware

When bronze emerged in ancient societies, one of the first and most consistent places we see it used is in cooking technology. As a metal, bronze conducts heat very well and makes for more efficient cooking. As a result, a lot of ancient bronze artifacts are cooking vessels, generally in the shape of a pot. Some presumably sat directly on a fire, while others were buried in pits of coal or placed inside large clay or stone ovens. Cooking technologies began to expand during this time, as people found new ways to cook things.

Ancient societies developed a wide range of bronze vessels for cooking and storing food, but there are a few common forms that can be found around the world. One of the most intriguing may be the tripod - a deep basin resting on three legs. A cauldron of this type could be placed directly over a fire, evenly heating its contents without smothering the flames. These tripods are found in as disparate Bronze Age societies as Greece and China and seem to have been popular pieces of ancient cookware.

An ancient style of Chinese bronze tripod called a Ding
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Of course, we have to consider who was actually using these tools. In most societies, bronze was a very valuable commodity. It was expensive and time-consuming to craft, so bronze cookware was often a luxury only the wealthy could afford. Ceramics were still the primary method of heating and storing food for the common people. In fact, many pieces of bronze cookware we've found don't really seem to have been used at all. They were likely display pieces, used for decoration and as a symbol of wealth. In ancient China, it wasn't uncommon to see fine bronze vases and pots inlaid with gold or other precious materials. In Greece, bronze tripod-cauldrons were actually awarded as prizes in athletic competitions, so they were status items as well as tools.

As luxury items, Bronze Age vessels were often very ornate
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Food and Nutrition

If Bronze Age people were creating new types of cookware, then what were they using it for? What did Bronze Age people eat? By the time people learned to combine copper and tin to make bronze, these same societies had already domesticated several kinds of plants and animals. The bases of the Bronze Age diet were cereals like wheat, millet, and barley. This is pretty consistent around the world. In fact, food in Bronze Age China wasn't too dissimilar from food in the Bronze Age Mediterranean; rice and tea hadn't made their way into the heart of China yet, so bread and beer were staples of their diet.

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