First published April 1, 2014.

395px-Knossos_frise2Minoan fresco commonly known as the “Prince of the Lilies” (Photo Credit: Harrieta171)


800px-Knossos_-_09Minoan Palace of Knossos on Crete (Photo Credit: Lapplaender)


When we were children, the careers we fantasized we’d have were highly impractical and decidedly not-boring: acting, perhaps, or painting, or sifting for fossils in the desert. (That is, not a desk job, which is the only criterion for our series of profiles called “Days of Their Lives.”)

Jerolyn Morrison has one of those dream jobs. She’s an anthropologist/archaeologist/potter who spends her springs, summers, and autumns on Crete, researching the lives of the ancient Minoans. She devotes her mornings, at the INSTAP Study Center in East Crete, to fitting together bag after bag of ancient pottery sherds to form vessels; she fashions replicas of those vessels from local clay to experiment with how people used them; she works with archaeo-botanists to discover what foods this ancient people ate; she uses the pots to cook feasts for local guests in the Minoan way, using the kinds of ingredients Minoans used.

Nice work if you can get it, and Jerolyn, 41, got it by following her passions. “I couldn’t have set out to do the things I’ve done,” she says. “I’ve never really had a five-year plan or a ten-year plan unless I’m in a university and degree requirements make the plan for me. How did I end up in Crete studying ancient pottery technology and domestic life and cooking? One line of curiosity led to another line of curiosity, and that’s the way I marched along; when an opportunity presented itself I was comfortable taking risks, comfortable with interacting with new types of people. I found that really energizing.”

She has a master’s degree in anthropology with emphasis in archaeology; she’s been a Fulbright scholar and a trained potter; she has just submitted her dissertation for a Ph.D. in archaeology and ancient history at the University of Leicester, England. She is more of an anthropologist than an archaeologist, she says, for she is fascinated not so much with classifying and dating an object (archaeology) but with figuring out how humans used it long ago (anthropology). She’s been researching on Crete for 17 years. She speaks “enough Greek to get me in trouble and out of trouble.”

JEM_potting_cooking_pot_Stella_Johnson_photographerJerolyn Morrison creating pots in the Minoan way. Photo by Stella Johnson, 2011.

Take the Minoans, a Bronze Age people who lived on Crete between 2000 and about 1500 B.C. They a seafaring people ruled by a king; they built massive palaces and created vivid frescoes; their city of Knossos was sung of by Homer. “With their unique art and architecture, the Minoans made a significant contribution to the development of Western European civilization as it is known today,” notes Mark Cartwright in The Ancient History Encyclopedia. “The archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans . . . . excavating at Knossos from 1900 to 1905 CE, discovered extensive ruins which confirmed the ancient accounts, both literary and mythological, of a sophisticated Cretan culture and possible site of the legendary labyrinth and palace of King Minos.” To be transported back to that colorful time—to the time of King Minos, Theseus, and the Minotaur, explore Mary Renault’s 1958 novel The King Must Die.

Minoan hieroglyphics and scripts have not yet been deciphered, so Jerolyn and her fellow researchers tease out the details of Minoans’ domestic life through piecing together shattered objects, chemical analysis, experiments (like cooking demonstrations), and informed speculation. “I work with a conservation team; we put these deposits together very slowly, very meticulously, to form a story about an archaeological deposit that’s been excavated. From there I work with other archaeologists, other archaeo-botanists, putting together a more in-depth story about ancient people from the objects we find.”

Here’s how the archaeo-botanists determine what the Minoans ate. “I sit with my colleagues going through these deposits, and they find little carbonized lentils, pieces of fishbones, goat, little pieces of crushed olives; little, tiny, precious gems—just beautiful under the microscope—and they’re so old! You can tell if they’ve been crushed or charred or cooked in particular ways. We find a lot of lentils, cracked wheat, butchered pork bones, butchered sheep and goat and cattle bones, butchered deer.”

Jerolyn’s the expert in the pottery of the excavations in the villages of Mochlos and Papadiokambos. She reproduces the cooking pots to be used in their demonstrations. “I put together only ceramics, while another group may put together metals, or frescoes, or pieces of wood or ivory or bone,” she says. “I understand pottery from my many years of being a potter and a potter’s assistant, both academically and professionally”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACleo the cat inspects Morrison’s Minoan-style cooking pots.

In 2011 Jerolyn’s team, Minoan Tastes (, along with the excavators Chrysa Sofianou and Tom Brogan, produced a tasting for some 80 to 100 people in the village of Papadiokampos in eastern Crete. Their menu and methods were based on the contents of House A1, an excavated two-story, multi-room, mud-and-rubble house that had evidently been destroyed instantly, as evidenced by a smashed jar with the remains of fish soup near parts of a hearth. Her lecture at the British Museum and article in 2009 “Cooking Up New Perspectives for Late Minoan IB Domestic Activities: An Experimental Approach to Understanding the Possibilities and the Probabilities of Using Ancient Cooking Pots” explains how they went about it.

The cooking pots were crafted by Jerolyn from clay that “macroscopically and petrographically closely matches the Mochlos cook-pots—tripod cooking pots, jars, and wok-shaped cooking dishes with broad spouts.” However, “due to heavy winds it was too dangerous to have an open firing, so a modern pizza oven and an electric kiln in Pachia Ammos were used to fire the vessels,” her dissertation notes.

The team formed a rectangle of stones to make the hearth and lit the charcoal and olive-wood clippings to start the cooking fire. It took some 45 minutes to get to the right temperature. “Cooking this way is definitely a slow process; it takes about three hours from start to finish, including making the coals hot enough,” Jerolyn says. Still, she estimates, the same meal made with a gas or electric stove would take almost as long.

JEM_cooking_Stella_Johnson_photographerMorrison as an experimental archaeologist (holding a Minoan-cooking demonstration). Photo by Stella Johnson, 2010.

The menu:

Lentils seasoned with honey, bay leaf, crushed coriander seed, sea salt, and topped off with olive oil (this island had no tomatoes or carrots back then).

Octopus simmered in either beer or red wine, and seasoned with thyme, garlic, and leeks.

Sautéed cuts of pork, mainly pancetta, seasoned with grape syrup, leeks, and garlic;

Beef liver simmered in puréed chestnuts, crushed coriander seeds, and garlic

Sautéed lamb seasoned with whole coriander seeds, garlic, and leek and finished off in a Cretan red-wine reduction.

All of these dishes were cooked in pots on tripods. Also, some cooking dishes were turned over to allow the baking of flat bread.

How did the ancient dinner taste?

“The food is quite good; it tastes very nice,” Jerolyn says. “It has the smokiness of the fire within it and a hint of the vessel; it’s an earthy and grounding taste. I think the fact that you spend a lot of time preparing the food adds to the pleasure; it’s nourishing, nurturing . . . it kind of slows you down.” And it’s very filling; eat a cup of the lentil stew and you’re full.”

And what will happen after Jerolyn defends her dissertation (“The Art and Archaeology of Cooking: A Comparative Study of Late Minoan Cooking pots from Mochlos and Papadiokambos”) in May?

“I’ll keep teaching and exploring ancient domestic cooking. I’m fortunate in that I’ve been in a university system for a long time and in and out of odd jobs here and there. There are probably not a lot of university positions around in archaeology and exploring Minoan culture, but that’s what I hope to do. I’m founder of a networking group called Historical Cooking, a nonprofit that promotes the culinary history of Crete, where eventually I would like to host other scholars who wish to explore cooking practices and food preservation, publish an online newsletter or journal, as well as hold workshops and cooking classes. There is nothing like this in Crete, or for Cretan studies, and this is important, because at the end of all these study seasons you want to put together articles, lectures, and books to broaden the knowledge of these ancient civilizations and explain why modern people should care about them.” It’s difficult to make a living from this work, she acknowledges. It takes an enormous amount of dedication and time. “I do get paid for what I do, but it’s the minimum, to get by. If things are going well you don’t notice the lack of money, but if something happens it can be a little tight.”

We are sure that Jerolyn Morrison will find a way to keep on doing the work she loves.

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