Archaeology Odyssey 9:1, January/February 2006

A Mesopotamian Feast

Ancient Recipes for Modern Cooks

By Adam Maskevich

Mesopotamia (as everyone who writes about it is required to state) is a land of firsts: the first cities, the first writing ... and the first cookbooks.

Apparently, the Mesopotamians included cooking among the arts of civilization. Along with commemorations of royal deeds and epics of their gods, they saw fit to inscribe the first-known recipes onto clay tablets around 1700 B.C.E., during what is known as the Old Babylonian Period. Today these tablets are housed at Yale University and provide a fascinating glimpse of the culinary practices of almost four millennia ago.

For a graduate student in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University who loves to cook, the tablets present a rare opportunity to get inside not just the mind, but the palate, of the people I study. Some of my fellow graduate students and I recently decided to go on a gastronomical adventure.

As all good scholars do, we started with the primary sources: descriptions of meals written by the Mesopotamians themselves. These are found in a book called Textes Culinaires Mésopotamiens by the great scholar and gourmand Jean Bottéro. In his book Bottéro provides translations of the Old Babylonian recipes recorded on the Yale tablets.

Join the BAS Library!

Already a library member? Log in here.

Institution user? Log in with your IP address.