1. The Pharmacology and Ecology of the Ancient Mysteries

In Progress


2. The Pharmacology and Ecology of Early Christianity

In Progress


3. The Southern Phokis Regional Project: Charting a New Interdisciplinary, International, and Inclusive Path for Archaeological Research (in collaboration with Ioannis Liritzis)

In Progress


4. The Pharmacopeia of Ancient Egyptian Alabaster Vessels: A Transdisciplinary Approach Utilizing Legacy Artifacts from Yale and Penn (in collaboration with Agnete Lassen)

Approximately twenty years ago, the first organic residue samples were taken from vessels excavated by Flinders Petrie in New Kingdom Tomb 254 at Sedment, Egypt and now in the Penn Museum. The same project today has been analyzing the contents of an intriguing Egyptian alabaster vase housed in the Yale Babylonian Collection and inscribed in four languages (Akkadian, Elamite, Persian, hieroglyphic ancient Egyptian) to Xerxes, the Great King of the Early Achaemenid Empire. It includes an addendum in the demotic Egyptian script that notes the capacity of the vessel in a Persian unit of measurement.

While the YBC vase dates centuries later than the less elaborate alabaster vessels from Sedment, their organic contents bear strikingly similar chemical fingerprints. Considered together with the large, elaborate alabaster vessels found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun, which were apparently filled to the brim with opiates fit for a royal afterlife, they suggest a long history of life management attached to these types of containers, from a modest burial in Sedment to a lavish tomb in the Valley of the Kings and, finally, centuries later, with a vessel inscribed with the major scripts of the Persian Empire filled with a medicinal concoction deemed worthy of the Great King of Persia.

These ongoing studies seek to elucidate the role of these vessels, and the medicinal contents attached to them, using a transdisciplinary approach that simultaneously considers all data sets as they unfold, from the chemical to the textual and everything in between.

In Progress


5. Sedment Tomb 254

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.

In Progress


6. The Cretan Collection in the Penn Museum IV: The Late Minoan III Tombs and Burials in the Gournia Region (with Cheryl Floyd and Ian Roy)

Abstract: From the earliest days of scholarship, the turn of the 12th century B.C. in Crete, as indeed throughout the broader Mediterranean, was cast as a period of displacement, turmoil, and decline as the great Late Bronze Age empires unraveled. In this bleak scenario, luxury items of the quality and frequency seen in the palatial periods were presumed a distant memory, even for elites, and the period was attached to both a strong decline in craftsmanship and the loss of specialized knowledge.
Rigorous scholarship in East Crete, carried out more recently by both Greek and international archaeologists, has worked to qualify the narrative of the Bronze Age collapse in East Crete by shedding light on the cultural practices particular to the region (Watrous 2015; Tsipopoulou 2011; MacGillivray and Sackett 2012; Whitley 1998; Haggis et al. 2011). Our own multidisciplinary research on funerary assemblages from LM III tombs at Tourloti and Mouliana, sites that span the Bronze-Iron Age transition, is revealing previously unrecognized cultural and technological continuity alongside some noteworthy innovation (Koh and Birney 2017; Koh and Birney 2019).


Our preliminary work shows evidence both for craft continuity and technological innovation in the form of high quality ceramics, metals, and funerary perfumes, evidence that suggests a picture far more complex than previously imagined. We are now testing these results at scale, by undertaking a multidisciplinary analysis of LM III objects excavated from funerary contexts across East Crete and presently housed in the University of Pennsylvania Museum. This will be the most comprehensive use of traditional and scientific techniques, such as organic residue analysis and ultra-accurate 3D modeling, to address questions of society, economy, and culture during the BA-IA transition, which will ultimately allow us to investigate at high resolution the narrative of Late Bronze Age collapse on Crete.

In Progress (Philadelphia: Penn Museum)


7. Environmental and Physical Studies: Organic Residue Analysis in Kabri III: 2013-2017

Forthcoming (Leiden: Brill)


8. The Cretan Collection in the Penn Museum V: The Late Minoan III Tombs and Burials at Episkopi and Environs

In Progress (Philadelphia: Penn Museum) 


9. 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 Semi-Fine) 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 Semi-Fine fabric, demonstrating that Phoenicia remained the epicenter of perfume production – or at least perfume delivery – long after the arrival of Alexander.

The editors 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. A subset of this research, currently being undertaken by K. Birney in collaboration with W. Gilstrap (MIT CMRAE) is analyzing the fabric composition and firing technology used in the manufacture of these perfume jars. We are presently assessing the different strategies deployed by potters in making jars designed to hold and transport these aromatic mixtures whose constituents were often volatile and prone to evaporation.

*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.

In Progress at MIT CMRAE and ASCSA Wiener Laboratory


10. Lipid Adsorption Project (with Will Gilstrap and Jenny Meanwell)

Fatty acid and calcite surface interactions in archaeological materials and environments.
Project Goals:
• To assess the scale and rate of adsorption of the most common organic fatty acids (those which are most frequent in ancient organic residues) in: (a) calcite rich base clays ; and (b) ceramics with varying degrees of calcitic inclusions/tempers
• To assess the degree to which calcitic inclusions and added tempers affect the expression of fatty acids in ORA extractions.
• To work towards a predictive model for the proportional rate of FA adsorption to calcitic inclusions in archaeological ceramics
• To develop/refine non-destructive geochemical pre-screening methods to predict ceramics with high probabilities of fatty acid/peptide preservation

In Progress at MIT CMRAE


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

Coming Soon


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

Coming Soon


13. The Mouliana Project

Coming soon


Completed Projects

Phoenician Cedar Oil from Amphoriskoi at Tel Kedesh: Implications Concerning Its Production, Use, and Export during the Hellenistic Age (in collaboration with Andrea Berlin and Sharon Herbert)

Archaeologists and historians have routinely attributed “branded” goods to particular regions and cultural groups, often without rigorous analysis. Phoenician cedar oil is perhaps one of the best known examples from antiquity. Hellenistic Tel Kedesh in the Upper Galilee region of the Levant is particularly relevant for these discussions by virtue of its strategic role as a border settlement in Phoenicia during one of the most dynamic periods in ancient history. As a concise contribution to these discussions, we present here an interdisciplinary analysis of amphoriskoi found with ca. 2000 impressed sealings from the archive complex of the Persian-Hellenistic Administrative Building. While the building was constructed under the Achaemenids and occupied in both the Ptolemaic and Seleucid eras, the archive was in use only under the Seleucids in the 1st half of the of the second century B.C.E. Blending organic residue analysis with archaeological and textual data has allowed us to identify with certainty one of the value-added goods most closely attached to ancient Phoenicia, true cedar oil from Cedrus libani. This discovery not only empirically verifies this well-known association for the first time, but also provides a rich context in which to test our assumptions about culturally-branded goods, the role they played in participant societies, and the mechanisms and systems in place that facilitated their production, use, and export.

Published in BASOR 385
Koh, Berlin, and Herbert 2021


The Mycenaean Citadel and Environs of Desfina-Kastrouli: A Transdisciplinary Approach to Southern Phokis

Andrew Koh (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Kathleen Birney (Wesleyan University), Ian Roy (Brandeis University), and Ioannis Liritzis (University of the Aegean)

Despite its ubiquity in historical and mythological narratives, the ancient region of southern Phokis in central Greece has been approached primarily as a backdrop for more prominent neighbors (e.g. Delphi, Boiotia), whose roles have been codified in extant histories. Archaeological research has been likewise limited, with the result that southern Phokis has remained largely untouched and unintegrated into the larger narratives of each of the major periods of antiquity. Recent work by the Southern Phokis Regional Project (SPRP) in the Desfina Plain is correcting this lacuna. SPRP is blending the strongest attributes of several disciplinary approaches (e.g. Classics, archaeochemistry, digital humanities) to produce a comprehensive transdisciplinary study of the natural and cultural landscape of the region, thereby illuminating the important role of southern Phokis during some of the richest epochs of human history.

Our 2018 study of Desfina’s natural and cultural environs, bolstered by excavations at the Mycenaean citadel of Kastrouli (ca. 1300-1050 B.C.E.), is revealing that southern Phokis served as a major, if not the primary, gateway to points south and west for northern Phokis, western Boiotia, and perhaps even eastern Lokris by securing access to the Corinthian Gulf. Our survey has documented ambitious engineering works that include a major hydrological project reminiscent of the Kopais Basin and “Cyclopean” terrace walls that sculpt the landscape. These achievements testify to a level of socio-cultural complexity and interconnectivity previously overlooked. In the shadows of Mount Parnassos, Desfina makes the best case yet to be not only the home of Echedameia, destroyed by Philipp II during the Third Sacred War, but also Homeric Anemoreia.

Published in Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry 20(3)
Koh, Birney, Roy, and Liritzis 2020


Environmental and Physical Studies: Organic Residue Analysis in Kabri II: The 2005-2011 Seasons (A. Yasur-Landau and E. H. Cline, co-editors)

Organic residue analysis (ORA) has been recognized as a valuable contributor to archaeological field research with the site of Tel Kabri known as one of its earliest adopters going back to its first major expedition in the 1980s. While great advances have been made in the intervening years, ORA still finds itself an irregular fixture in field research as a whole. Presented here are the early steps taken during the renewed expedition organized by A. Yasur-Landau and E. H. Cline to produce not only ORA results, but also to help incorporate ORA more effectively and comprehensively into standard archaeological research design and practice. While definitive results and details of the ancient viticulture activities that have become a fixture of understanding the palatial economy at the site will be presented in Kabri III, the general findings over the years nevertheless provide useful contextual background and highlight the invaluable methodological insights and overall significance of the initial ORA results provided by the seasons of Kabri II, which are presented here. They hint at the aggregate advantage of conducting ORA studies over numerous consecutive seasons at a well-organized, scientifically investigated site while a part of a larger ORA ecosystem such as the OpenARCHEM archaeometric database.

Published in 2020 (Leiden: Brill)


The Natural and Cultural Environment of Southern Phokis: The Plain of Desfina

(2020 Archaeological Institute of America Annual Meeting)

Andrew Koh (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Ioannis Liritzis (University of the Aegean), and Ian Roy (Brandeis University)

This investigation of the natural and cultural environment of the Desfina Plain in Southern Phokis of Central Greece was inspired by an ongoing study of mainland interconnections with East Crete and the Levant during the Late Bronze-Iron transition by Koh in conjunction with a lifelong perspective of the region by Liritzis. This present investigation builds on J. McInerney’s foundational studies of the topography and history of Phokis (1999, 2011) and draws on a transdisciplinary blend of traditional, digital, and archaeometric techniques to undertake a comprehensive ecological, environmental, ethnohistorical, and topographical study of Southern Phokis.

Sandwiched between Achaea and Boeotia, long-recognized centers of past human activity, the Desfina Peninsula has been characterized as a relatively nondescript pastoral landscape throughout history as far back as the Bronze Age. Yet initial ceramic studies suggest a more networked reality, a landscape that drew inspiration from adjacent regions through contacts, but produced fine pottery of its own accord with local resources. This self-sufficiency was perhaps even necessary due to prominent geographic features (e.g., Corinthian Gulf, Peleistos River Valley) that naturally demarcate mountainous Southern Phokis from its better-known neighbors, which encouraged maritime connections for trade and exploration early on as evidenced by the nearby Mycenaean coastal acropolis at Steno.

Our preliminary study of the Desfina environment, buttressed by targeted excavations at the fortified Late Helladic III site at Kastrouli (ca. 1200 B.C.E.), indicates that the peninsula was more than a simple pastoral outpost supplying surrounding regions with livestock. Evidence for ambitious hydrological and transportation works projects dispersed throughout intra-plain settlement pattern units that were likely coordinated (e.g., lake drain, Cyclopean road terraces) along with abundant remains of an ancient marine diet up in the plain attest to a level of complexity and interconnectivity previously overlooked. In the shadows of Mount Parnassos, yet its own entity as a high-altitude plain shielded by the local promontory of Mount Kirfis, the rich natural and cultural environment of the Desfina “mesokampos” makes the best case yet to be not only the home of the classical polis of Echedameia, destroyed by Philipp during the Sacred War, but also Anemoreia (Iliad 2.521) with its closely associated plain (Lycophron, Alexandra 1073).

Ancient Organic Residues as Cultural and Environmental Proxies: The Value of Legacy Objects

Abstract: 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 sherd tucked away in a museum storage closet can offer insights into their contents, their histories, and the cultures that created them – provided the results can be carefully calibrated to account for their treatment during and after excavation. The case study below presents ORA data 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 their object biographies are carefully considered. It also sheds light on biomarker degradation processes, which have implications for methodologies of extraction and interpretation of legacy objects. Comparative studies such as these broaden the pool of viable ORA candidates, and therein amplify ORA’s ability to reveal patterns of consumption as well as ecological and environmental change. They also highlight the role and value of data-sharing in collaborative environments such as the OpenARCHEM archaeometric database.

Published in SUSTAINABILITY 11(3)
Koh and Birney 2019


Organic Compounds and Cultural Continuity in Late Minoan East Crete

Abstract: 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


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.)


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