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Ancient Greeks made mass production possible by using lignite

The Mycenaean culture in Bronze Age Greece not only is famous for works of art such as the Gold Mask of Agamemnon, but also for the export-oriented mass production of elaborately made ceramic vessels and bronzes, such as swords and vessels.

Now an international team led by Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU) archaeologist Philipp Stockhammer, has now been able to show that this mass production was possible more than 3,000 years ago because people systematically were using lignite for their kilns and smelting furnaces at that time.

In the study “Archaeometric evidence for the earliest exploitation of lignite from the bronze age Eastern Mediterranean,” in the journal Scientific Reports, the team archaeologists and chemists found evidence of this in the dental calculus of Bronze Age people from Greece, who repeatedly inhaled the exhaust fumes from burning lignite, aka brown coal, during their lifetimes.

“This finding was a real surprise,” said Stockhammer.

Actually, the archaeologist and his team wanted to better understand what people in the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean ate. To do this, they examined the tartar of people who lived in the region in the 2nd millennium BC, from mainland Greece to Crete and the eastern Mediterranean.

Study examined inhaled soot

“We found that not only micro remains, fats and proteins from the respective foods were embedded in the tartar and preserved over the millennia, but also all the soot and exhaust fumes that came into the mouth through inhalation,” explained Stockhammer, who, in addition to his LMU professorship, also works at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. “So, we can still say thousands of years later that lignite was burned in the fireplaces and ovens in front of which people sat in the workshops.”

The researchers applied thermal desorption/pyrolysis–gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and polarizing microscopy to the dental calculus of 67 individuals and identified evidence for combustion markers embedded within the calculus. 

They had expected chemical signatures in the dental calculus from the smoke of pine and oak, trees that still grow there today. Some people also inhaled smoke that is produced when dried animal dung is burned–a fuel that is still common in wood-poor and hot, dry regions. But the lignite signal was completely surprising.

Lignite presence suprised researchers

“When we analyzed the data series from the Mycenaean citadel of Tiryns on the southern Greek mainland and the western Cretan port of Chania, we could hardly believe it at first,” said Stephen Buckley from the University of Tübingen, who carried out the chemical analyses. “Half of all the individuals we examined from both sites–both males and females–clearly had the chemical signature of lignite in their tartar, in addition to the expected woods.”

This is clearly different from charcoal, they report.

Moreover, the signatures are so specific that the researchers can even link them to lignite deposits known today. In southern Greece, a deposit near Olympia, a good 150 km west of Tiryns, was apparently exploited in the Bronze Age. In Crete, a deposit located directly near Chania was exploited.

“This means we can prove the exploitation of lignite as early as the 14th and 13th centuries BC, a good 1,000 years earlier than previously thought,” said Buckley.

The archaeologists are convinced that it was this early use of lignite that enabled the Mycenaean Greeks to produce high-quality ceramic vessels and bronzes in almost unbelievable numbers.

The finds of mycenaean pottery from spain to syria show that tens of thousands of vessels were produced annually in the southern greek workshops, primarily for export.

–Philipp Stockhammer

“The finds of Mycenaean pottery from Spain to Syria show that tens of thousands of vessels were produced annually in the southern Greek workshops, primarily for export,” said Stockhammer.

Lignite made mass production possible

The early, almost industrial mass production was ultimately only possible in a densely populated and largely deforested region because the fossil fuel lignite was systematically used.

“Until now, there had been nothing to indicate that lignite was already being used in the Bronze Age,” said Stockhammer. “We now have to rethink resource management in Mycenaean Greece.”

The study also is part of a larger project, which aims to understand Eastern Mediterranean culinary practices of the 2nd millennium BCE, i.e., the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 2000–1600 BCE), the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1600–1200/1050 BCE), and the Early Iron Age (after 1200/1050 BCE).

Its authors are Buckley, Robert C. Power, Maria Andreadaki-Vlazaki, Murat Akar, Julia Becher, Matthias Belser, Sara Cafisso, Stefanie Eisenmann, Joann Fletcher, Michael Francken, Birgitta Hallager, Katerina Harvati, Tara Ingman, Efthymia Kataki, Joseph Maran, Mario A. S. Martin, Photini J. P. McGeorge, Ianir Milevski, Alkestis Papadimitriou, Eftychia Protopapadaki, Domingo C. Salazar-García, Tyede Schmidt-Schultz, Verena J. Schuenemann, Rula Shafiq, Ingelise Stuijts, Dmitry Yegorov, K. Aslιhan Yener, Michael Schultz, Cynthianne Spiteri, and Stockhammer.

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