Charred lumps of plant material may not sound like a window into past civilizations. But for Penn archaeologist Kathleen Morrison and colleagues Jennifer Bates from Seoul National University and Kelly Wilcox Black from the University of Chicago, several such remnants offered insight into the dietary habits of people living in southern India some 2,800 years ago.
“These are usually considered unidentifiable,” says Morrison, the Sally and Alvin V. Shoemaker Professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology. “You typically can’t analyze them because they’re just blobs of charred material.”
A few years ago, however, Penn had acquired a new microscope that takes high-resolution images and stitches together the images. “You can see things in amazingly sharp detail,” Morrison says. So, she and Bates, a former postdoc in Morrison’s lab, started analyzing the material under the microscope.
In a paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the researchers detail what they learned. Inside a large pit from the historical period known as the early Iron Age, they identified a dough made from millet, likely used to make a sort of flatbread, and a dough made primarily from pulses like beans and lentils. Penn Today spoke with Morrison about the findings and why they’re important.
Kathleen Morrison is the Sally and Alvin V. Shoemaker Professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania and a curator in the Asian Section of the Penn Museum.