Current Projects

1. Comparative Organic Residue Analysis of Legacy and Freshly-Excavated Archaeological Ceramics: A Consideration of New Analytical Approaches

Often treated as an “accessory” science, organic residue analysis (ORA) has the capacity to illuminate otherwise hidden aspects of ancient technology, culture, and economy and therein can play a central role in archaeological inquiry. Through ORA, both the intact vessel freshly excavated from a tomb and the sherds tucked away in a museum storage closet have the potential to offer insights into their contents, histories, and the cultures that created them – provided the results can be carefully calibrated to account for their treatment during and after excavation. This case study presents ORA results obtained from a range of artifacts from Late Bronze Age Crete, setting results from freshly-excavated and legacy objects alongside one another. Although legacy objects do tend to yield diminished results from both a quantitative and qualitative perspective, our comparative work has demonstrated both their value and untapped potential when object parameters and biographies are carefully considered; it also has implications for future methodologies of extraction and interpretation. Such comparative studies are crucial for the development of the field, and demonstrate the value of data-sharing in collaborative environments such as the OpenARCHEM archaeometric database.



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”), or particular fabrics (i.e. workshops?)
  • 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.


*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. Scents and Stability: Challenging the Bronze Age Collapse through the Funerary Landscape of East Crete (in collaboration with Cheryl Floyd and Ian Roy)

The end of the Bronze Age in the Mediterranean has been cast as a period of chaos and decline as great empires dissolved. On Crete, this traditional​ ​outlook​ ​holds​ ​that​ ​after​ ​the​ ​demise​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Minoan​ ​palatial​ ​centers,​ ​the​ ​majority​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Cretan population​ ​perished​ ​or​ ​took​ ​to​ ​the​ ​sea​ ​while​ ​the​ ​remaining​ ​groups​ ​fled,​ ​impoverished,​ ​to​ ​small​ ​mountain refuge​ ​sites,​ ​where​ ​they​ ​maintained​ ​no​ ​Mediterranean​ ​connections.​  East Crete was no exception, deemed by some “wild country”, and dismissed as a backwater detached ​from​ ​the rest​ ​of​ ​Crete​ ​and​ ​the​ ​larger​ ​Mediterranean​ ​after​ ​Late​ ​Minoan​ ​(LM)​ ​IB​. ​In​ ​this​ ​scenario,​ ​luxury​ ​items,​ ​even​ ​for elites,​ ​are​ ​presumed​ ​a​ ​distant​ ​memory​ ​and​ ​the​ ​period​ ​marked​ ​by​ ​decline​ ​in​ ​craftsmanship​ ​and​ ​the​ ​loss​ ​of specialized​ ​knowledge.​

​Our preliminary work on tomb vessels from Tourloti (Koh and Birney 2017) showed evidence both for luxury items and craft continuity in the form of complex funerary perfumes, evidence which suggests a picture far more complex than previously imagined. We are now testing these result at scale, by undertaking a multidisciplinary analysis of 25 stirrup jars excavated from funerary contexts across East Crete and presently housed in the University of Pennsylvania museum. This will be the first and largest comprehensive use of organic residue analysis to address questions of society, economy, and culture in the Mediterranean to date, and integrates traditional and archaeometric methods to interrogate the narrative of Late Bronze Age collapse on Crete.  Integration of these ORA results with textual, ecological and iconographic study, this project may also offer new insight and access to the texts and iconography of the Minoan and Mycenaean worlds.


4. Ritual Vessels from the Cult Site of Knossos-Anetaki (in collaboration with Athanasia Kanta)

Coming Soon


5. Five Stirrup Jars and an Oinochoe from the LM III Cemetery of Tourloti-Platanos (in collaboration with Vasiliki Zografaki)

Coming Soon


6. 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.


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

Coming soon


Completed Projects

Integrating Organic Residue Analysis into Archaeology (2017 ASOR Workshop)

Description: Organic residue analysis (ORA) remains one of the most dynamic subfields of material culture studies in archaeology, and offers unique opportunities to illuminate past socio-cultural practices otherwise hidden from the naked eye. Resources for such work can be challenging, however, with few opportunities for collaboration between ORA specialists, and restrictive avenues to publication which often results in siloed datasets. OpenARCHEM ( is imagined as an open source, collaborative, and reiterable database to facilitate the rapid sharing of scientific datasets. It is designed to be both a repository and a search engine – useful both to specialists and non-specialists alike – which will connect to archaeological projects, museums, and other educational institutions in the eastern Mediterranean. It will also offer an alternative route to publication, which can complement, rather than compete, with traditional publication outlets. This workshop seeks to gather both specialists in ORA together with non-specialist archaeologists who use ORA to discuss obstacles and best practices for collaboration, and to offer feedback on the beta version of the OpenARCHEM database. We invite interested parties to provide feedback, comments, and suggestions with this form.

WORKSHOP CHAIRS: Andrew J. Koh (Brandeis University) and Kathleen J. Birney (Wesleyan University)


Part I: ORA in Practice

Andrew J. Koh (Brandeis University), Opening Remarks (5 min.)

Elsa Perruchini (University of Glasgow), Claudia Glatz (University of Glasgow), and Jaime Toney (University of Glasgow), “Can’t Touch This!: Preventing Excavation and Post-Excavation Contamination” (10 min.)

Zuzana Chovanec (Tulsa Community College), “Transforming Chemistry into Anthropology: Issues in the Interpretation of Analytical Results” (10 min.)

Kate J. Birney (Wesleyan University), “The Value of Legacy ORA Data and Objects: Case Studies” (10 min.)

Andrew J. Koh (Brandeis University), “Reconciling Secondary ORA Data with Ongoing Archaeology” (10 min.)

Part II: Building for the Future

Kathleen J. Birney (Wesleyan University), Introductory Remarks (5 min.)

Andrea M. Berlin (Boston University), “The Levantine Ceramics Project” (10 min.)

Anna K. Krohn (Brandeis University), “Designing the OpenARCHEM Archaeometric Database” (10 min.)

Eric H. Cline (George Washington University), Discussant (10 min.)

Open Discussion (45 min.)


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


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s