From Neolithic Times to the Beginning of the Modern Age

The Farm Project by Mike Meiré is a court kitchen installation, which ventures to look at a life full of joy, pleasure and emotions and extends beyond all contemporary minimalist kitchen arrangements. It is a scenery full of set pieces that tell stories of when the kitchen and its animal inhabitants were still embedded in the apparently past world of hunters and gatherers. It tells of the kitchen as a place, a dialectic world containing humans and animals, honesty and heavenly abundance, between collecting and consuming, between death and life, between old and new.

The staged glance into this kitchen arouses facets of the present and the past. It brings archaic images to life within us, it reminds of the beginning of civilisation, which is also the beginning of our cultural history, and with its abundance of objects it takes us on a long journey through time into a world of the smells, cult, taste and technical innovations. The invisibly divine circles within these elements in the open fire of the ancient world and the invisible physicality of modern electricity around the hearth, around the stove, around the central energy field of the kitchen, around a place that provides spaces for rituals of being human.

The kitchen has been the focus of everyday life for millennia and it is still one of the rooms of which relatively little is known as pertains to its past design. It was and is an elementary component of everyday life and everyday life was not a subject of documentation for a long time. The kitchen was and is a place of serving meals, of social togetherness and social hierarchies and it was and is a place in which important steps of our civilisation and cultural history took and continue to take place. It is here that the Peking man discovered fire about a half a million years ago, possibly even by accident. It served as a source of heat for our ancestors, but was not yet an element used for the preparation of meat. This was to be left to the species between the Peking man and the Neanderthal man approximately 75 000 years ago. They discovered that a piece of meat, which had probably fell into the open fire by chance, turned out to be more tender and tasty. Thus began an infinite odyssey of food preparation and an evolution of taste, standards of living and technical development.

The cultivation of grain and the domestication of wild animals 11 000 years ago marked the next big turning point and the most recent archeological findings have pinpointed it to have started deep within Turkey on the border to Syria. The first stable settlements with houses and cooking sites arose not in Jericho, in the area of the “Fertile Crescent” nor in today’s Palestine as previously believed, but in the paradise-like settings of Southeast Asia Minor. On the Göbekli Tepe (hill with a navel), stone-age people ventured into until then unknown regions of their cultural heritage. According to the newest scientific knowledge, the origin of all civilisation lies within sight of the holy Islamic city of Urfa, native city of the ancestor Abraham. This seems to be the original site of house construction and loaves of bread, as manifested in simple houses without windows made of clay bricks, catacombs many meters deep and buildings with megalithic pillars, which were discovered and excavated on a 15 meter high and 90 000 square meter large Neolithic pile of rubble erected by hunters and gatherers.

The ruins of the Göbekli Tepe come from a time when neither ceramic saucepans nor textiles existed, and they have shaken the world views of prehistory and early history experts. Up to now the invention of building houses was ascribed to the first settled farmers. According to this scenario, people moved erratically through their hunting territories for millennia. And it was only when the farmer, the agriculturalist entered the scene that property came into play and unleashed the “Neolithic revolution”. The homo sapiens became domestic, cultivated grain and made cattle their servants.

In the Bible this process is described as the fall of man. Adam reaches for the fruit from the tree of knowledge and is therefore banned from paradise and becomes a farmer. Many experts also interpret the quarrel of Cain the farmer and Abel the cattle breeder as a story about the sudden fight for land, house and hearth. But what did these ancient colonists, who wove the oldest known piece of linen and left carved pictograms possibly as one of the first kinds of writing on small soapstones, really live from? They certainly weren’t professional farmers. No trace of cultivated grain has been found. Gruel couldn’t be cooked anyhow. The cooking pot was developed only 2000 years later around 7000 B.C. In contradiction to all that was previously held to be true, the inhabitants of Göbekli Tepe primarily ate game and yet they were house owners and hunters who went out with spears and bows.

It was not the farmers who built the first houses, but highly specialised natureboys who satisfied their hunger with weapons. Their main prey was the gazelle. It supplied the important animal protein as evidenced by mountains of excavated gazelle bones. The inhabitants of almost all ancient Anatolian villages between the 10th and 7th pre-Christian millennia, who are now slowly emerging from the ancient rubble, killed gazelles in masses. The wild animals that were easier to catch like sheep, horses, cows and onagers were already decimated to such an extent at the end of the ice age that they were no longer sufficient as sources of nourishment. And thus the stone-age hunters of Asia Minor fell upon the new animal of prey, of which there must have been an almost inexhaustible quantity in herds of gazelles beyond the Jordan valley. In the winter the gazelles grazed in Saudi Arabia and in the spring they moved up to the Taurus mountains. To catch the agile animals, Neolithic hunters came upon an ingenious hunting method. They built walls that were several miles long, which lead to pens. Thus whole hordes became the prey of hundreds and even thousands of hunters who were waiting to shoot the animals with their lances and spears. Apparently there was a bloodbath every time the gazelle herds returned from the South in the spring. Gigantic mountains of meat resulted and had to be preserved fast.

Three technologies were available to the ancient hunters for this: drying, roasting and salting. But where were the cured herds of gazelles to be stored? Competitors for the food lurked all around: wild animals, hostile clans. Stone depots were built to protect the food. These were ashlar rooms that had no windows, no light and were cool. The fact that construction, at least on the Göbekli Tepe, did not consist exclusively of dwelling houses is now considered to be certain. Many of the buildings that have now been excavated seem far too ostentatious to be Neolithic homes. Did the first settlers build themselves huge meat depots? Current archeological excavations prove that these primitive pantries were at the edges of the settlement and temples towered in the centre. It was these full meat chambers that enabled homo sapiens to settle down in one place and then to take up the hobby, as it were, of experimenting with cultivating grain and breeding cattle.

The settlers of the Göbekli Tepe seem to have lead the way with these achievements as well. In a large investigation, the Norwegian molecular biologist Manfred Heun succeeded in determining where the forefather of all wild einkorn stalks grew. This type of grain is considered to be the most important cultivated plant of primeval times. Today it is manifested in hundreds of genetic variations. By comparing genes, Heun was able to pinpoint the location of the original wild einkorn: It germinated at the foot of a sanctum on the Göbekli Tepe. This laid the foundation for the most important staple food of the first grain farmers, for unleavened bread which one baked on a flat stone beside the fire site. The development eventually led to the first ovens and the clay containers invented shortly thereafter widened the possibilities of food preparation substantially. The discovery of fermentation was also closely related to bread baking. The Sumerians favoured top-fermented beer, but the Egyptians were probably the first to discover how to bake yeast bread as a result of their brewing attempts. They were also the first to use salt as a preservative. At the height of their culture, the art of cooking had already developed quite considerably. The Pharaohs knew and cherished delicacies like sweet cake, salted fish and cheese.


More than all the other kitchens which were to follow in Europe, the various kitchens of Greek antiquity clearly show the value of food in our cultures. The basic foods in ancient Greece were barley and wheat which were enjoyed in the forms of porridge and flat cake. Women and slaves were responsible for preparing the grain dishes and this relied on a certain form of social organisation. Due to the fact that the big cities could not grow the grain necessary to feed their populations, there is a close correlation between this basic food and the development of trade and Greek conquests. At that time the majority of the Greek population only seldom had meat on their plates. But the preparation of meat moved it into the focus of civilisation and it took its place between religion and politics. In ancient Greece the consumption of meat always went hand in hand with sacrificial rituals; each piece of meat consumed by people came from a sacrificial animal. And the sacrifice of animals was a common practice in the political life of the polity. The key figure of this ritual, the Mageiros, had several functions: He bled the animal on the sacrificial altar, cut up the animal body and prepared the meat. Findings and literary traditions shed light on the eating customs of the Greeks of antiquity and also to regional differences. Even the names of some of the popular dishes are known. The Greeks saw their way of nourishment as a cultural characteristic which distinguished them from the barbarians. The accuracy of knowledge pertaining to the Greek kitchen as such is above all due to Hippocratic writing, which contains a wealth of information about the preparation of certain foods.

As part of practical life, the Greeks had already been using fire since the time of Homer for cooking, forging, sacrificing, firing ceramics, cremating, warming, lighting as a signal, lighting as a weapon, cleaning and for the mining of ore. Sticks were rubbed together or the right types of stones were smashed against one another to ignite a fire, and a steadily burning oil lamp or a glowing narthex stick was kept as a source of fire. As a reflection of the human division of labour, female or male gods were created to be responsible for different works with fire as benefactors or patrons: Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, took on a central role in the home and the state and embodied by virtue of her chastity and the connection to stove the type of behaviour desired of women. Hephaistos, the God of technological fire, was responsible for metal and ceramics work. A connection between forging and volcanic fire was even reflected at the mythical level as the workshops of the divine forgers were localised in subterranean caves or in volcanoes. A mythic complex was interwoven with the divine gift of heavenly fire, which Hesiod twice seized upon. When the gods and people once had a falling out, the titan’s son Prometheus tried to deceive Zeus with a distribution of sacrificial meat that was favourable to humanity. Infuriated, Zeus kept fire from human beings. Prometheus stole it and handed it over to the people. He was punished in an agonising manner for it and then Zeus punished mankind by creating Pandora, who unleashed a box full of evil on the world.

Cult activities central to Greek religion developed from the ritual of cooking. These included the torch run to transfer a new ritually pure fire to a different place and the actual fire sacrifice. A distinction was made between the annihilated victim (holokauston) and the sacrificial meal divided with the gods (thysía). Torch light was a characteristic element of night-time celebration. It played a lead role in the main act of the Eleusian Mysteries in the Telesterion and was the namesake of the night celebration on Parnassus. The fire sacrifices developed into fully-fledged fire celebrations such as those in Daidala, the ones to honour Zeus and Hera in Plataia or the sacrifice connected to a gigantic fire for Artemis Laphria in Patrai. The funeral pyre brought an eschatological dimension to the use of fire. As a “passport” to the underworld, the Homeric hero received his “share of fire”. A river Pyriphlegethon (conflagration) surrounded the hereafter; Eleusian mystics that had become part of the enlightenment of the divine theatre were promised a happy fortune in the afterlife. In mythology, Heracles, Asklepios and Semele achieved divinity through death by fire. They suggested a connection between funeral pyres, cosmology and the belief in the afterlife. Baptism by fire offered the possibility of reaching higher spheres while still alive. In Homeric hymns, Demeter would have made the king’s child Demophon immortal in baptism by fire at night if she had not been interrupted; and especially in the cult of Dionysus, rites are evidenced which imply an apparent painless contact with fire without burning. The idea that earthly existence could be overcome by fire is based on its cleansing properties, because removing or overcoming the body gave rise to hope for an existence beyond the physical.

Fire also played an important, multifaceted role in Greek philosophy. Within the context of pre-Socratic Ionic speculation as to the origin and composition of the universe, Heraclitus deemed fire to be the raw material and symbol of the universe. The hearth and hearth fire were held in high esteem by the Greeks and Romans because they were the homes of household gods. In addition to this, it was the central place in the house where the family could meet for meals and it also provided light and warmth. Therefore the hearth became synonymous with house. As part of the wedding ceremony, the bride was escorted into the bridegroom’s house, around the hearth and then covered with the katachysmata. In Rome the bride’s future task consisted, among other things, of keeping the hearth clean and sweeping it out in the evening. In Greece one could swear by the hearth and those begging protection could find shelter there.

The central function of the hearth or the fireplace in the house was demonstrated early by the round stoves of the Mycenian palaces in Pylos and Mycenae. Even houses in the 2nd millennium B.C. had solid mortar hearths, some of which had chimneys. There were also portable cookers and braziers. The tradition of solid-built and portable stoves continued into the geometrical, archaic and classical periods. In addition to this, open hearths in solid packed clay floors are evidenced by houses in Olynth or the Temple of Apollo at Dreros. The pots were put on tripods or on a plate above a firing space.

The Romans knew a substantially more varied and cultured form of food preparation. The Roman kitchens were extensively equipped with accessories and spices and can be seen as the first true precursors of today’s kitchens. They were usually located in the atrium, from whence the smoke of the fire could escape. When the atrium became used increasingly as a living area, the kitchen was moved into a separate adjoining room. The poor population on the other hand lived in congested blocks of rental flats which were constantly exposed to the danger of fire. Cooking was carried out in communal kitchens here.

The Romans preferred charcoal as a fuel, because a quick cooking method was substantially more suitable to the Mediterranean climate than big fires that caused disagreeable heat. Grilling on grates or spits was preferred and cooking pots were put on tripods above the coals. The most important instruments in a Roman kitchen remained unchanged even in later centuries. Pestles and mortars are of antique origin.

The Romans also developed the principle of the tower pot and they employed a variation of the bain-marie: an open container in which different pots with different foods were able to simmer separately. At that time the clay amphora served in all Mediterranean countries as a typical storage container. It could be placed upright in the ground with its sharp pointed shape.

The expansion of the Roman empire enabled society, which was always anxious to learn of new amenities and refinements, to become familiar with new exotic dishes and spices on an ongoing basis. Spices from the East, and especially pepper, were in high demand because they made the starchy food taste more interesting and covered the rancid taste of meat.

Recipes from the Roman period have been preserved to this day. Most of them are contained in the 10 cookbooks of Apicius, which were compiled under the name “De re coquinaria libri decem” presumably in the first century A.D. However, some of the medical treatises such as the writings of Galenus and Oribasius contain recipes as well. Ingredients and preparation imply that there were dishes of varying quality, which Trimalchio in Petronius’ Satiricon hardly served all of at his banquet. In the long centuries of Roman rule, the everyday kitchens of most citizens of Rome were much simpler than the refined, expensive dishes of the elite, which Trimalchio, a released slave and social climber who lacked “refined taste”, offered in abundance.

The food of simple citizens primarily consisted of porridge, which was replaced by baker’s bread over time in some areas, and a side dish often made of legumes (Pulmentarium). The Romans also gained meat exclusively from sacrificial animals for a long time and it was by no means found on all menus. Furthermore, the dishes in simple households were refined only using pieces of meat of lesser quality and innards, which were liked far less than the prized sow’s nipples for example.

Due to its expansion, the Roman empire included a wide range of regional cuisines. The Romans used local specialties, the reputation of which sometimes extended hundreds of kilometres away from their places of origin as evidenced, for example, in Pliny the Elder’s mention of cheese from Dalmatia and Gaul. But in the regions controlled by Rome there were also several products like the fish sauce garum which lent common nuances to the various regional cuisines.

When in the fifth century the Visigoths conquered the Roman empire, they also brought a sudden halt to the cultural development of the classical world of antiquity. In general life in the early Middle Ages is seen as, a relapse into a rough, uncivilised era, in which the daily struggle for survival did not permit the cultivation of taste. Starvation and epidemics hindered all progress and characterised the impression of the dark Middle Ages, from which only few documents have survived that could shed light on this historical period. The influences of migrating Normans, Cimbers, Teutons, Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Gauls and Slavs as well as the southern cultures ofGreeks, Arabs and Saracens all left their marks in the Middle Ages. Europe had become a melting pot of the most different cultures, the repercussions of which found their way into the soup pot as well. This trend only came to an end with the dawn of the Italian Renaissance in the 14th century. Antiquity was rediscovered, original texts were translated from the Greek and Latin and thus old recipes were recovered. The cuisine of antiquity was mixed with that of the Middle Ages to create a wide variety of new dishes. And therefore the eating customs in West-European countries can be traced back to a common medieval origin. It is no coincidence that certain Italian, English, French and German recipes are alike. A long time before the concept of a common Europe came into being, there existed a “European Community” of cuisine: it consisted of the same use of honey, almonds, game, beans and cabbage. The medieval kitchen for its part is a product what was remembered of Roman cuisine and the foreign influences left by the various conquerors of Europe. The earliest known cookbooks were written in Latin, but colloquial tongues soon took hold as well. Cookbooks from this time include “tractatus de modo praeparandi et condiendi omnia cibaria” and “Über de coquina”. The oldest preserved cookbook is “buoch von guoter spise” (1345). It promises to teach the layman “wie er groz gerihte kuenne machen von vil kleinen sacken” (how to make great dishes from several little things).

Information pertaining to amounts or cooking times were not common in the old cookbooks. The authors probably assumed that the user knew these details and also didn’t want to reveal some of their culinary secrets. In 1474 the book “de honesta voluptate et valetudine” by Bartolomeo Platina appeared in Italy. It was subsequently translated into several languages and its English title is “On right pleasure and good health”.

The cuisine of ancient Rome was very much admired in Italy and France. For centuries it was considered to be the only one worthy of a civilised society, and was handed down by oral tradition from generation to generation. The famous cookbook of Apicius “de re coquinaria” was also transmitted to the kitchen of the Middle Ages by culinary enthusiasts. In this case they were monks who carefully protected the writings of antiquity. But the recipes were adopted, varied and experimented with. Our medieval forefathers adopted from the Romans the generous use of spices. Tea, coffee and tobacco were not yet known, but spices were used as stimulants. The crusaders brought from Byzantium and the holy land strange spices which were often extremely expensive. Therefore they served the nobility and patricians not only as spices, but as a way of showing off for guests by way of extensive use. Those who were frugal with spices were considered impolite and this lead to quite a bit of quarrelling.

Well-to-do citizens normally had three to four meals a day in the Middle Ages. The first was a breakfast rich in content, which usually included a cup of wine, a bowl of milk, mush or thick soup. Sometimes a multiplecourse early meal followed. A snack in between meals consisted of wine into which bread was dipped. The actual main meal was dinner between 3 and 6 p.m. The order of dishes was not fixed and soups were always served at the end of each course. A course did not mean a dish with side dishes as is the case today, but the times that the kitchen staff came from the kitchen, at which points they usually brought two or more dishes. Lenten food for guests who were fasting had to be presented with each course. Desserts concluded the meal.

Having several courses served was only possible for the rich and usually only done on days of celebration. From old reports it can be inferred that up to several dozen different dishes were served at celebrations. The guests had a large selection, but did not partake of every dish. Hands were washed before and after eating using washbasins or aquamanilas that were passed around. This word includes the Latin words for water “aqua” and hand “manus”. Napkins, which were used in antiquity, were rediscovered only in the 14th or 15th century, until which point the tablecloth was used to clean mouths and fingers during the meal.

The dishes were served in big bowls or plates, from which people helped themselves. A slice of bread, was used in place of a plate and, starting at the beginning of the 13th century, this bread was placed on a platter of wood or tin. The slices of bread were fed to the poor or to the cattle after the meal. Drinking mugs and bowls with porridge or soup were shared with the next person at the table. One ate with three fingers as is still practiced in the oriental world. Knives and spoons have been in use since the 13th century. Spoons had a short handle and were held with the whole fist. Women and men carried knives in their belts and therefore they didn’t have to be placed on the table. The knife was used to spear the already chopped pieces of meat and put them in the mouth. The fork at the table has only been used since the 16th century although it was already known in antiquity. Monks from the Montecassino monastery called them the devil’s tools because they looked similar to the devil’s pitchfork. The church saw the fork as an evil device intended to seduce into sin. Medieval dishes were mostly made of fired clay. Wooden dishes were used as well. Silver, ivory, motherof- pearl, horn, glass and rock crystal were precious materials and only used by the rich (primarily for drinking mugs). At courtly tables, the carver had the task of pre-cutting the meat dishes. He was a respectable and highly paid person. The cupbearer was responsible for providing the drinks, a coveted and honourable task. The advisor or taster supervised the setting of the table and tasted the dishes before his master.

Cooking and roasting was carried out without regard for the food to be prepared. It was believed that the stomach had to be relieved from having to “cook” the food itself. The short protective preparation methods of today’s kitchen were absolutely unknown and not deemed necessary according to the knowledge at that time. And thus the food’s own taste was hardly recognisable if at all subsequent to preparation. The added spices dominated and even had to stand out in order to impress the guests. The most common cooking method, because it was the easiest, consisted of boiling over a ground-level fireplace. The majority of the dishes were boiled.

Roasting on spits or grates was much less common than is commonly assumed. “Grilling” was not only very time-consuming – the courts even had their own apprentice cooks to turn the spits –, but the meat required for it was not always available. Breaded pieces of meat were fried in hot grease and were very well-liked for their golden colour.  Various sweets and blossoms were also covered with dough and fried in this manner. Breads were baked in ovens. Usually no one had their own oven in the cities and villages and thus raw dough was brought to the baker or to one’s own bakehouse to be baked. Another method consisted of using a clay pot with a lid, on and around which charcoal was piled to created a little oven.

The so-called smoke kitchen with an open fire in the floor was prevalent at around 1000 A.D. The smoke departed through gaps in the roofing (the so-called “owl’s hole”). Over the course of time the fireplace freed itself from the ground and became an open cooker on one wall of the room. Other changes that affected heat regulation in the kitchen took place between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries. The fireplace was eventually raised onto a massive base roofed by a chimney hood. The cooking chimney, which escorted the smoke to the smoke hole through wooden shafts, was created. The fireplace had to be connected to the smoke chimney for this. The hearths gradually took on the shapes of later stoves and, for the first time, a differentiation was made between the space and the furnishings. The fireplace became an element of the architecture. Attempts were also made to simplify cooking over an open flame. Due to the fact that the fire could not simply be turned down, various tools were developed to help adjust the distance to the flames and thus regulate the heat. Thus the distance between that which was being cooked and the flame was made to be adjustable by raising the spit or pot higher using a tripod or a kind of notched gear. Various sizes of fires were required to prepare dishes requiring different levels of heat. Thus the fireplace was a huge waste of energy! As early as the middle of the 16th century, there were efforts to reduce the consumption of wood. Using walls on three sides of the fireplace and a cover with an iron plate, the heat was concentrated and the number of sparks was reduced. The fire box virtually formed the basic shape of the stove. However, this new technology required no change of cookware: pots and pans with flat bottoms, which could stand securely on their own and ensured good contact to the stove plate, became necessary.

The kitchen buffet was an invention of the seventeenth century. It originated from a board fastened to the wall, which the taster used to try dishes before serving them to his employer. Over the course of time, the narrow board with shelves above it developed into an free-standing piece of furniture with a solid back wall, which was as high as the room in which it stood. The closed cupboards in the lower part served for storage of the laundry, while dishes could be placed in the upper part. The further development of the fireplace into a closed fire box covered with a perforated metal plate, from the holes of which flames leapt to surround the cooking vessels above, took place in 1735. Continuous development of existing technology led to another improvement around the turn of the century. The pots were inserted in the fire holes, so that the fire could no longer escape and so as to prevent loss of heat. At the beginning of the 18th century, wood had become much more scarce in Northern Europe and, as a consequence, stove and oven technology were examined in a semi-scientific way for the first time. Coal took hold as a new fuel even though it was very expensive. The use of coal required a new kind of stove because itrequires continuous airflow to burn. Count Rumford carried out systematic physical research of heat build-up and the behaviour of gases and smoke. He used this knowledge to construct energy-saving stoves, in which several cooking holes were heated by horizontal hot-air channels leading from a single fire. The development of new technologies resulted in turning away from stone stoves and building them out of cast iron plates. With the advent of the cast-iron stove, the cooking unit was finally freed from the ground and the wall altogether and became a mobile piece of furniture. By the end of the 18th century the coal and wood burning cast-iron stoves had been perfected. It had become a technically elaborate apparatus with fire on grates inside the stove, ash pans for easy disposal, heat lines to the stove top and fire holes that could be covered and made smaller or larger using stove rings. Nevertheless, at the dawn of the 19th century, all of these things were still very exclusive innovations reserved only for the wealthy. Cast-iron stoves only found widespread use starting in 1860. But even these stoves had their disadvantages. Early in the morning, even before lighting the first fire or putting the first water kettle on to boil, one had to rub the stove with blacking and polish the metal. Despite new technology, badly prepared meals and burnt meat were nothing unusual. Without a reliable way to measure temperature, cooks depended solely on experience. A cookbook recommended, for example, that a stove was only suitable for baking cake when you could put your arm in and count to forty. A slightly less painful method consisted of throwing a handful of flour into the stove seeing how fast it burned.

At the same time people returned to cooking on open flames in that they started using gas. Using gas as a fuel brought with it many advantages. It is available on demand, it concentrates the heat and it doesn’t have the bothersome by-products of smoke and ash that are produced when burning wood or coal. Laying gas lines throughout the cities was required for widespread use of gas for cooking and this was not the case in many places until after 1900. Development of kitchens also progressed during the industrial revolution. The electric stove was presented for the first time at the World Fair in Chicago in 1893. It laid the foundation for revolutionising life throughout technical civilisation. But even the electric stove was not distributed as widely as hoped at first. Electricity grids were still new, the devices were technically immature and there was something “uncanny” about electricity. It was simply not yet popular. The electric stove experienced its final breakthrough only after 1930. Up to that point old and new technology coexisted in modern kitchens.

Peter Weiß