PHILADELPHIA—Ancient Food & Flavor takes curious minds and palates on a gastronomical journey across time by examining food and plant remains in an indooroutdoor exhibition. It opens Saturday, June 3, 2023 at the Penn Museum.
Food has long played a central role in understanding human history. Archaeologists and researchers turn to preserved plants and animal bones as tiny treasure troves of data for interpreting people’s decisions, diets, activities, and traditions.
“Food has always been an important part of culture and identity. Archaeologists are interested in studying food because it relates to people’s lives today and creates connections to the past,” says Dr. Chantel White, curator of Ancient Food & Flavor and the archaeobotanist in the Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials (CAAM) at the Penn Museum. “Interpreting ancient foods can tell us more about the labor, skill, and knowledge of ancient peoples and their traditions surrounding food practices. These ‘leftovers’ also help us to reconstruct ancient environments and identify the plant and animal resources that were available to past people.”
Visitors will learn about how ancient communities were planting crops, hunting, eating, and drinking, based on organic remnants from thousands of years ago across three sites:
- At Robenhausen, where some of the most famous archaeologicaldiscoveries during the 19th century came from Switzerland’s wetlands, waterlogged houses offer a chance to see homes, fishing tools, and food remains dating back 6,000 years. This section in the exhibition features interactives, along with artifacts on display, such as carbonized fruits and nuts, and a Neolithic boar tusk from around 4,000 BCE.
- At Numayra, a 4,500-year-old Early Bronze Age community located in Jordan, archaeologists found plant material preserved through carbonization (burning). This area features a vignette about winemaking with ancient jars, serving jugs, and grape seeds on display. In addition, visitors can take a closer look at carbonized wheat grains resting on a grinding stone.
- Along the coast of Peru, just south of present-day Lima, the site of Pachacamac yielded the remains of dried foods and cooking pots that date back to 200 CE. In this section, guests can view ancient potatoes (about 600-700 years old), beans, peanuts, and corn, alongside cotton, fabrics, and baskets. It delves into ongoing research that examines climate history, as well as archaeology over time.
Ancient Food & Flavor also highlights scientific samples gathered by Penn archaeologists 60 years ago from bristlecone pine trees in California to calibrate radiocarbon dates—an essential tool still used today to determine the age of an archaeological artifact.
Short videos in the exhibition offer scenes from daily life, along with information about food sources and storage techniques. Microscopes will be available for visitors to identify tiny seeds, while learning how researchers recover material from archaeological sites.
"When archaeologists find remains of ancient foods, they are looking at material that would have been critical to every person who lived at a site: what to eat, how to cook it, and what it should taste like,” says Dr. Katherine Moore, curator of Ancient Food & Flavor and a zooarchaeologist at the Penn Museum. “We follow this history in our food culture today. These foods come to us from the landscapes of the prehistoric past."
Located on the Lower Level inside the Merle-Smith Galleries, Ancient Food & Flavor extends through Mosaic Hall and into the Museum’s interior garden space—a hidden gem. The exhibition invites visitors to stroll through the Mosaic Gardens and view firsthand the crop plants that have played a key role in the human experience of village life.
For the outdoor portion of the exhibition, visitors can connect with living, food-related plants on display in the courtyard, how they look, smell, and feel—and the landscapes that crops can create. The garden includes some of the same plant species in the exhibit, so that visitors can see both living and older, archaeological examples. Plantings may include gourds, wheat, chili peppers, strawberries, plums, and other foods, depending on the time of year and outdoor conditions.
Access to Ancient Food & Flavor is included with Penn Museum admission.
About the Penn Museum
The Penn Museum’s mission is to be a center for inquiry and the ongoing exploration of humanity for our University of Pennsylvania, regional, national, and global communities, following ethical standards and practices. Through conducting research, stewarding collections, creating learning opportunities, sharing stories, and creating experiences that expand access to archaeology and anthropology, the Museum builds empathy and connections across diverse cultures.
The Penn Museum is open Tuesday-Sunday, 10:00 am-5:00 pm. The Café is open Tuesday-Thursday, 9:00 am-3:00 pm and Friday and Saturday, 10:00 am-2:00 pm. For information, visit www.penn.museum, call 215.898.4000, or follow @PennMuseum on social media.
ABOUT THE CURATORS
Katherine Moore, Ph.D., Co-Curator
Dr. Katherine Moore is the Mainwaring Teaching Specialist for Zooarchaeology in CAAM and a Consulting Scholar in the American Section. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan for her study of early use of domesticated animals in South America. She is interested in reconstructing the use of animals in prehistory from a social, economic, and environmental perspective using bones from archaeological sites. She has conducted fieldwork in Peru, Bolivia, several areas in the U.S., and in Central Asia. She first visited the Penn Museum in 1966 on a family trip from her home in Delaware, and began teaching in the Department of Anthropology at Penn in 1999.
Chantel White, Ph.D., Co-Curator
Dr. Chantel White is the Teaching Specialist for Archaeobotany in CAAM, earning her Ph.D. at Boston University. She specializes in the study of plant remains from archaeological sites and the connections between agricultural practices, environment, and foodways. Her research interests span the Mediterranean, Near East, and historical US, and she maintains active field projects in Greece, Jordan, and Charleston, South Carolina. She also directs the Summer Archaeobotany Program (2016 until the present).
ACKNOWLEDGING OUR UNDERWRITERS
Ancient Food and Flavor is made possible with support from the Diane vS. and Robert M. Levy Exhibitions Fund, and from Janice T. Gordon, Ph.D.