The taphonomy and preservation of wood and dung ashes found in archaeological cooking installations: Case studies from Iron Age Israel

Shira Gur-Arieh, Ruth Shahack-Gross, Aren M. Maeir, Gunnar Lehmann, Louise A. Hitchcock, Elisabetta Boaretto

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Cooking installations are among the most abundant features in Bronze and Iron Age archaeological sites in the southern Levant, yet until now their study has been mostly descriptive. We present a study of 11 purported archaeological cooking installations from three different Bronze and Iron Age sites in Israel in which we deployed a variety of microarchaeological techniques. We provide direct physical evidence, based on Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy demonstrating that the archaeological installations were operated with temperatures as high as 900°C. Using this technique we also demonstrate that all the mud-constructed installations studied by us were internally-fueled and therefore should be identified as Tannurs rather than the externally- fueled Tabuns. We studied in detail the quantities of ash-related microscopic remains, including opaline phytoliths, calcitic wood ash pseudomorphs and dung spherulites. We show that phytolith morphotype analysis cannot distinguish between wood-dominated and dung-dominated fuel materials, while a newly developed method that calculates the ratio of ash pseudomorphs to dung spherulites (PSR method) makes such a distinction possible.Moreover, we experimented with the effect of partial dissolution on fuel ash PSR values and utilize the results to explain taphonomy and diagenesis associated with two types of archaeological cooking installations - pebble hearths and baking ovens. In addition, we identified micromorphological criteria that can be used to assess whether ash deposits in or above a cooking installations are in situ and/or disturbed. Taken together, all lines of evidence used in this study indicate that wood was the major fuel material across time and space in the studied archaeological contexts, while dung was a secondary source of fuel. This observation also cross-cuts different culture-historical entities (Philistines, Canaanites, Israelites and Egyptians). In addition, wood was preferred as fuel irrespective of environmental differences among the studied sites. This study is yet another demonstration of the value of integrating microarchaeological techniques and approaches to traditional macroscopic archaeology.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)50-67
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jun 2014
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work forms a part of the PhD dissertation of S. Gur-Arieh, Bar-Ilan University. We thank the directors and staff of the three sites studied here, whose help was central in this study: Alexander Zuckerman, Amit Dagan, Brent Davis, Josephine Verduci, Dean Smith and Shira Kisos, from the Tell es-Safi/Gath excavation; Israel Finkelstein, Eran Arie, Rob Homsher, Assaf Kleimann and Ma'ayan Mor from the Megiddo Expedition; Steve Rosen and staff members of the Qubur el-Walaydah excavation. The study was supported by the Kimmel Center for Archaeological Science (Weizmann Institute), grants from the Israel Science Foundation , Focal Initiatives in Research in Science and Technology F.I.R.S.T . Grant no. 527/09 to R. Shahack-Gross and F.I.R.S.T. Grant no. 32/11 to A. Maeir, E. Weiss and L. Horwitz, as well as the German-Israel Foundation for Research and Development (Grant # 1080-132.4/2009 to A. Maeir and J. Maran), the Institute for Aegean Prehistory and the University of Melbourne (A. Maeir and L.A. Hitchcock), and the Australian Research Council ( DP1093713 to L.A. Hitchcock and A. Maeir).


  • Ash pseudomorphs
  • Cooking
  • Dung spherulites
  • FTIR
  • Fuel
  • Oven
  • PSR
  • Pebble hearth
  • Philistines
  • Phytoliths

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology


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