Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
The importance of cereals (which often need to be cooked in order to make them more palatable) and fermented beverages (safer to drink than water at the time) explains the expansion of bronze cauldrons and vessels we see from this era. But what about meats? Meat was often a luxury as well, particularly for the working classes. The average person only had meat on special occasions, if at all. Most people had diets that were essentially vegetarian, with the exception of coastal communities where fish were easier to come by.
So, what does this mean in terms of nutrition? Even meat that was available tended to be very lean and low in fat. Don't forget, your body does need fats; not all of them are bad. Ancient people found other ways to provide this; olives, for example, were a huge part of Mediterranean diets.
However, archeologists who study nutrition by examining ancient bones have found evidence of malnutrition in some societies of the time, likely due to a lack of calcium, protein or good fats, but they also found that these societies were great at getting vitamins and other nutrients from a plant-based diet. Even things like scurvy, caused by a lack of vitamin C, seem to have been pretty rare in the Bronze Age. There's a lot that we still don't know about food and nutrition of this ancient era, but it's clear that new materials and new technologies led to some new and intriguing ideas about cooking and eating.
In the Bronze Age, the appearance of new metal tools helped change the ways that people cooked, stored, and ate their food. Bronze cookware generally took the form of deep vessels, including the intriguing tripod shape found across the world. Bronze was a luxury item, so the average person still used ceramics for cookware and storage, but the forms and shapes of bronze items seem to have influenced ceramics as well. Bronze Age people lived largely on a diet of cereals and other agricultural products, with meat also being something of a luxury item. There's a lot we still have to learn about Bronze Age life, but they seem to have appreciated good food, so at least in that we have something in common.
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