Life in the ancient world centered on food – planting, producing, and processing. With the exception of a few specialized craftspeople in urban centers, nearly everyone worked with food in some way. Some remained hunters and gatherers, while others took up farming or specialized trades, like butchery.
Pottery: Pieces of the Past
Ceramics like this one last longer than any other artifacts, so they are especially useful for archaeologists to learn about the lives of ancient people. Pottery can reveal clues about a culture’s diet, artistic traditions, and technology. For example, this bowl shows remnants of pink coloring. We don’t know exactly what it contained, but ancient people in the Near East commonly ate dates, eggs, peas, olives, and poultry. It may also have held unprocessed grains, such as barley, millet, or wheat.
Dishes for the Rich and Poor
In the ancient world, pottery was the dishware of the common people. It was cheaply made and easily discarded, much like today’s plastic. Ceramic dishes became sturdier and more uniform in shape and design as new pottery-making techniques developed. For example, hotter fires fueled by charcoal were used in kilns, so pottery no longer had to be baked in the sun.
This Iron Age bowl is from the region known today as Khirbet Taqua. Its surface is highly polished, which shows that it was of high quality for its time. However, it was not intended for a wealthy Mesopotamian dinner table—it was discovered in a tomb in the ancient city of Tekoa.
The Age of Stone
Bread was the staple food of the ancient world. Sometimes it made up as much as seventy percent of a person's yearly calories. Because it was such an important part of everyone’s diet, bread making was a daily chore.
Luckily for ancient people, grinding tools, such as this mortar and pestle, were invented early on, in the Mesolithic period. Grains like corn or barley were placed on a handheld flat stone and ground with a basalt pestle until they became flour. This technology was so widespread that its use continued even after more efficient millstones developed. However, some of the basalt always chipped off and mixed with the flour, which wore down ancient people’s teeth.
This mortar and pestle set was probably used to grind corn.