Institute of Archaeology


Commensality, Cooking, Dining and the Politics of Gastronomy in the Near East

In the vast literature on the emergence of agriculture, village life and urban life in the Middle East, there is much to learn about the social customs by which early farmers and city-dwellers prepared and consumed food. Meals are everyday rituals of profound importance in social life, structuring daily social intercourse and reinforcing cultural values. Sometimes, cooking and dining are mainly social rituals in which nutrition is of little significance. Food choices, processing, cooking, dining, "table manners" and hospitality enculturate individuals, encode social relationships, define social groupings, mark changes of status and role and symbolize other elements of social structure.

Food customs are central to many kinds of social negotiations (the politics of gastronomy). They can be used to legitimize, undermine or manipulate social or political hierarchies. High status is often marked by specially-prepared or exotic foods (cuisines), eaten in elaborate settings. Differential access to food preparation facilities may have been central to the emergence of social ranking and early class societies.

This project explores these issues via spatial analysis of food preparation facilities, e.g., hearths, pits, bins, benches, platforms, activity areas, caches and ground stone artifacts such as mortars, pestles, stone vessels, milling tools, and axes, as well as other artefacts and remains of plants and animals.

In the Levant, as the Neolithic evolved, spatial patterns suggest that food preparation activities gradually became more private, conducted within sheltered spaces in individual households, a trend possibly associated with the development of private property and possibly, changes in the status of women (Wright 2000, "The social origins of cooking and dining in early villages of western Asia". Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 66(1): 89-121.)

Work on these issues continues with exploration of other regions and periods. The focus is on two major arenas of research:

  • At Çatalhöyük, Turkey, analysis of food preparation processing tools and related data from some 52 houses is revealing provocative patterns compared to the Levantine Neolithic
  • Later developments in food preparation and commensality in the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Ages. Collaborations have been agreed with scholars working on sites in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria (details forthcoming).

Related outputs

Selected publications

  • Wright, K. I. 2008. Craft production and the organization of ground stone technologies. In Y. Rowan & J. Ebeling (Eds.), New Approaches to Old Stones: Recent Studies of Ground Stone Artefacts: 130-143. London: Equinox Archaeology Books.
  • Wright, K. I. (in press) Ground stone tools and technologies associated with Building 3 at Çatalhöyük (Chapter 16). In R. Tringham & M. Stevanovic (Eds.), House Lives: Building, Inhabiting, Excavating a House at Çatalhöyük, Turkey. Reports from the BACH Area, Çatalhöyük, 1997-2003: 16.1-16.14. Los Angeles: Monographs of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, University of California at Los Angeles.
  • Wright, K. I., Tsoraki, C., Siddall, R., Ozbek, O., & Baysal, A. (in preparation) The abraded stone technologies of Catalhoyuk: craft production, food preparation and household specialization from millstones to sculptures. In I. Hodder (Ed.), Substantive Technologies from Çatalhöyük: reports from the 2000-2008 seasons: Los Angeles: Monographs of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, University of California at Los Angeles.

Public Conferences and Lectures (since 2007)

  • Wright, K. I. 2010. Lecture: Food preparation, consumption, craft production and Neolithic private property: insights from abraded stone technologies. Templeton Lecture presented at the Catalhoyuk dig house, July 2010.

Public Engagement and Impact

  • An interactive website is planned to allow for public dissemination of this research to a wider audience.
  • Karen's work on this subject has been cited extensively in discussions of the origins of agriculture, by scholars across the world, eg articles in journals American Antiquity 1994 (75 citations); Levant 1993 (21 citations); Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 2000 (37 citations)


  • UCL