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Bronze Age Souvlaki Found on Santorini

Three souvlaki skewers on a black grill
Modern-day souvlaki grill. Credit: TheGirlsNY / CC BY-SA 2.0.

The beloved souvlaki has been around since ancient times. Skewers dating back to the Bronze Age have been found by archaeologists, and recent research looks at the functioning of early grills. In particular, “souvlaki trays” have been discovered dating all the way back to Mycenaean culture.

Therans and Mycenaean cultures were both known for their luxurious and lavish lifestyles, ornate and colorful clothes, exquisite art, and sea trade with other cultures, such as Egypt. People developed these cultures on the islands of Crete and Santorini.

World’s oldest souvlaki in Santorini

The oldest souvlaki skewers found seem to be those discovered by archaeologists on Santorini dating back as far as 2000 BC. There are traces of the popularity of souvlaki on Santorini and Crete through the Bronze Age, and both Theran and Mycenean cultures made use of this method of cooking.

Ancient bronze skewers and vase, with small painted ceramic amphora
Ancient bronze skewers and vase. Credit: diffendale/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Ancient Greek texts such as the Iliad and the Odyssey describe a spit (Greek: ὀβελός) being used to roast meat, but the exact functioning of the souvlaki trays was unknown until recently. The works of great poets and writers describe the same obeliskos being popular. Sophocles, Aristophanes, Xenophon, and Aristoteles all mention or describe the popular dish in their works.

Mycenean Cooking and Culture

It seems that ancient Mycenaeans did not have a large variety of foods available to them. Despite this, they developed various types of cooking methods, fostering innovation. Part of that innovation was souvlaki trays, as was cooking in jars among other techniques. At the time and for most of ancient history, cooking was mostly done on hearths with few ingredients. The portable and lightweight souvlaki trays seem to have changed this for Mycenaeans around 1400 to 1050 B.C.

Two ox-shaped clay bars that hold up mock skewers with handles
An ancient Greek grill from Akrotiri. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Academics suggest that an important historical force behind these contraptions was status. While the Myceneans had incredibly rich art and fashion, their diet lacked diversity, though a marker of status was drinking wine. On the other hand, one can imagine poorer Mycenaeans drank beer.

As they were skilled sailors, Therans on Santorini island had begun brewing beer in the II millennium B.C., possibly learning the skill from Egypt or the Near East, where beer had been brewed since the III and IV millennium B.C. Accounts of the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. tell of an Athenian bias against beer. It was considered a drink of barbarians, the Egyptians, or even women. Beer brewing never was seen as valuable.

In the Late Hellenic period, this all changed. By that time, wine had become readily available to all. This pushed the elites of Mycenae to look for other ways to distinguish themselves, for instance through the use of specific gadgets and kitchen appliances, such as souvlaki trays.

The Souvlaki Tray

The souvlaki trays found in Gla, Pylos, and Crete added something to the age-old tradition. Similar to modern-day outdoor grills, they were designed to be portable and good for travel or entertainment. Meat cuts seem to have been similar to the ones popular for souvlaki today, made from either lamb, pork, or mutton, and the meal was accompanied by bread made of various cereals.

The clay trays had placeholders for the skewers and, until recently, how they actually functioned was unknown. Researchers at Dartmouth College have recreated the trays using original ancient pottery techniques, tools, and ingredients. They realized the trays were not meant to be put on a hearth as originally thought. Rather, embers were placed in the tray and the skewers were grilled. They were practical, portable, and delicious!

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