Masterclass Report IX: Organic Residue Analysis

by | Jan 28, 2021 | Uncategorised | 0 comments

This masterclass was delivered by Prof Oliver Craig (University of York) and Dr Jessica Hendy (University of York).

This masterclass report has been written by Abigail Greenall (The University of Manchester) and Vendy Hoppe (The University of Manchester).


Archaeologists Prof. Oliver Craig and Dr Jessica Hendy led the penultimate masterclass of the Microscopic Records Event, which focused on organic residue analysis; a technique used to study the remains of organic material trapped in porous archaeological artefacts. Our discussions shed more light into the scientific methodologies and equipment that Sam Presslee had introduced attendees to in the earlier session on proteomics, which is a sub-field within the wider scientific analysis of organic residues. The masterclass thus provided another opportunity for early career researchers to gain initial training in various microscopic research methods.

Introducing the field to the attendees of this masterclass, Craig and Hendy described how it has evolved over the past few decades, mainly targeting residues that have been absorbed in or remain on prehistoric pottery and other cooking vessels. This method is able to analyse lipids (oils, fats and waxes) contained for example in milk, as well as proteins. While protein analysis can lead to precise identification of the species, lipid analysis is slightly more limited, making it impossible to differentiate between, for example, cow and goat milk molecules. Organic residue analysis cannot indicate if the residue originates from the first or the last use of any given vessel or is a combination of all its uses. Nevertheless, archaeologists have had great success in identifying fish, meat and even plants which have provided unique insights into early agricultural economies, marine exploitation, cooking practices, diets, nutrition, and the cultural value of food.1

The lack of organic residue analysis for the post-medieval period is somewhat surprising given the relatively high survival rate of early modern artefacts, particularly kitchenware. This realisation ignited a debate among the participants of this masterclass about how organic residue analysis could be incorporated in their projects. In the course of these discussions it became clear that there are broadly two ways of incorporating this method into early modern research. On the one hand, archaeological scientists, collection teams and historians could work together to perform organic residue analysis on large assemblages of artefacts, which would provide a lot of data and contribute to a greater general understanding of the period. However, as vibrant as the material world of the early modern period is, without informed and precise objectives this approach is in danger of simply affirming known information about artefacts and the period. The second approach would involve designing individual research projects in direct collaboration with archaeological scientists to create close and detailed questions about specific artefacts. It was generally agreed that the latter approach would be more fruitful in providing answers and generating new questions of early modern artefacts and their human users. For example, organic residue analysis could answer questions on artefact use and specialisation, reveal information about cooking and healing practices, highlight the travel and appropriation of culturally specific foodstuff, and reveal connections between the kitchen, stillroom and artisanal workshop.

Our conversation with Craig and Hendy showed that further open-ended discussions are necessary to provide historians with a greater understanding of different scientific equipment and their analytical capabilities. This would foster realistic expectations of the generative potential of organic residue analysis and result in its appropriate use in historical research. At the same time, the expertise of historians will also be essential in pushing the field further, both in terms of designing questions as well as in contextualising the results. Ultimately, in bringing together experts from different fields, the ninth masterclass created a unique opportunity to discuss developing projects and foster networks of interdisciplinary research, highlighting the need for collaboration between scientists, archaeologists and historians.


1 Oliver E. Craig, Hayley Saul, and Cynthianne Spiteri, ‘Residue Analysis’, in Michael P. Richards and Kate Britton eds., Archaeological Science: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), pp.70-98.


Abigail Greenall, The University of Manchester.

Vendy Hoppe, The University of Manchester.