Current Projects

1. Organic Compounds and Cultural Continuity in Late Minoan East Crete 

The turn of the 12th century B.C. traditionally has been cast as a period of turmoil and upheaval in the eastern Mediterranean. Although recent scholarship qualifies “the Collapse,” the dominant narrative continues to be one of disruption, regression, and isolation. East Crete has been painted with a similar brush, having been described as “the wild country east of Dikte.” Yet the century that followed the final demise of Bronze Age Knossos remains generally understudied, despite scholarly recognition of the region’s importance for the reconstruction of both local Cretan and pan-Mediterranean histories at the end of the Late Bronze Age. As a small contribution to this discourse, we present here an interdisciplinary analysis of a noteworthy Late Minoan IIIC Early (ca. 1175 B.C.) stirrup jar from the western Siteia foothills of East Crete. Organic residue analysis utilizing gas chromatography has allowed us not only to identify the value-added product contained within the jar, a perfumed oil, but also to consider its individual ingredients in light of known craft practices and agricultural activity from the earlier Neopalatial period. Our results reveal surprising evidence of specialized craft continuity in East Crete at the conclusion of the Bronze Age, which suggests a historical picture more complex than traditionally imagined. This will be the first in a series of OpenARCHEM studies of legacy objects employing both traditional and scientific methods.

Koh and Birney 2017


2. Phoenician Perfume Trade in the Persian and Hellenistic Levant

During the Persian period (539-323 B.C.) Phoenician perfume was a popular commodity at a wide range of Levantine coastal sites, as well as a regular votive item at Phoenician sanctuaries (e.g. Mizpe Hayamim) and an appropriate gift for the dead. Perfumes traveled in a range of small jars (Phoenician ovoid juglets, stumpy juglets, short-shouldered unguentaria) which through macroscopic fabric analysis and petrographic study can be assigned to the northern Levant broadly (in the case of White Ware)  and Phoenicia specifically (in the case of early Phoenician Semifine) and therein perhaps provisionally sorted into distinct workshops.

During the Hellenistic period (323 – ca 63 B.C.) perfume trade not only continued but appears to have intensified, given the popularity and widespread distribution of fusiform unguentaria in virtually every Levantine site.  However during these centuries perfume traveled in different containers including  amphoriskoi, flanged lip juglets and a range of unguentaria. Of these a surprisingly large proportion were produced in a distinctive Phoenician semifine fabric, demonstrating that Phoenicia remained the epicenter of perfume production – or at least perfume delivery – long after the arrival of Alexander.

The Editors (Birney/Koh) are beginning a collaborative and interdisciplinary study of Persian and Hellenistic period perfume jars from sites in the northern and southern Levant, beginning with the sites of Ashkelon and Tel Kedesh.* By integrating petrographic, morphological, medical, archaeobotanical and ORA data we consider Phoenician perfume production from a  longue (-er) durée point of view, to shed light on mechanisms of production and changes in the perfume market over time, with an eye to the following questions:

  • What kinds of ingredients, and therefore recipes, were used in the production of these unguents?
  • Is there a correlation between the contents and the jar shape (i.e. “branding”)
  • Is there a correlation between jar contents and particular fabrics (i.e. workshops)
  • Is it possible to distinguish between unguents and oils designed for aesthetic use and those created for medicinal purposes?
  • Are the sources of the ingredients for these recipes local, regional or foreign? Can palaeoethnobotany be used to reconstruct a map of sources?
  • Do the recipes or ingredient sources change between the Persian and Hellenistic period, and why?
  • Can we identify differences between the distribution processes of the Persian and Hellenistic periods?

Beyond its relevance to Persian and Hellenistic archaeology, this project can establish an important baseline for the study of perfume trade in a variety of eras.


Stage 1: Ashkelon (sampled summer 2017)
ORA residue analysis, coupled with ceramic and petrographic study of Persian and Hellenistic perfume bottles from Ashkelon. We will attempt to recover samples from the following jar types:

               Persian                                                            Hellenistic

Ovoid Juglet                                                     Rolled Rim Unguentarium  (2 workshops)

Short-Shouldered Unguentarium             Amphoriskos

White Ware Stumpy Juglet                        Elongated Fusiform Unguentarium

Flanged Lip Juglet

Bulbous Unguentarium

Stage 2: Kedesh (sampled 2008-2009)
Analysis and identification  of previously extracted ORA residues from 2nd century flanged lip juglets and amphoriskoi from Tel Kedesh.

Stage 3: Legacy (ongoing)
Analysis, identification, and comparison of ORA residues from listed jar types presently held in North American collections (e.g. Brandeis Classical Artifact Research Collection).

*With special thanks to Daniel Master (The Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon), Sharon Herbert and Andrea Berlin (Tel Kedesh Project), and Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow (Brandeis CLARC)  for their kind permission to work with the jars from Ashkelon, Tel Kedesh, and various sites in Israel.


3. Cypriot Base Ring I Juglets (Bilbils) in the Late Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean

ORA samples from Cypriot Base Ring I “bilbil” juglets from an 18th dynasty tomb assemblage from the ancient Egyptian site of Sedment have offered insight into the contents deemed appropriate for funerary offerings in the New Kingdom. Recent scholarship on these vessels in the Levant (e.g. Bunimowitz and Lederman 2016) have brought into question Merrillees’ original proposal that the bilbils were a marker of Cypriot opium trade in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Sedment bilbils, both by virtue of their contents and placement in the tomb, offer an original contribution to the conversation, and help to shed light on the cultural and economic systems in which these juglets may have played a role throughout the Late Bronze Age.


4. Organic Residue Analysis at Tel Kabri: 2009-2017

Coming soon


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