The Heart of the Kitchen

Ovens and stoves. The heart (and hearth) of any kitchen, ancient or modern.

Ovens were small and brick or clay and either on the ground or in the ground or raised up. Stoves would be brick or clay and open on one side for fuel and open on the top to set a pot on the edges.

An easy stove style for traveling would be balancing a pottery pot on 3 stones with the fire source underneath.

Set up of fireplaces used for the experiments with animal dung as fuel. Nubian style cooking pot replica to the left, Egyptian cooking pot replica to the right. Photo: C. Geiger.

What is an oven?

Part of the problem when researching these things is, unfortunately, ubiquitous. Ancient technology tends to end up in a giant lump of ideas where geography, culture, social status, and even millennia, make little difference. You see this in most any study of Ancient Egypt, where tools available to royalty in the New Kingdom might be considered one and the same with tools available to subsistence farmers in the Old Kingdom, more than 1000 years earlier.

My first pass at looking at ancient ovens came up with plenty of descriptions—and even modern pictures—but I wasn’t finding much that was specific to time and place when going more than a couple hundred years back. There is a tendency for Western writers to assume that low-tech tools used by rural people (or poor people) haven’t changed in thousands of years. A mistake that these same writers wouldn’t use on European cultures. But transport said writer to the Middle East or Africa or the Americas (or let them do so virtually) and it’s all “gosh, look at how they do XYZ just like they did 5000 years ago.”

Ebeling and Rogel discuss this problem at length regarding the Tabun. This term refers to a specific and fairly modern clay oven, but has been used to mean just about any clay oven out there.

[German theologian Gustaf Dalman (who wrote the eight-volume Arbeit und Sitte in Palästina 1987)] believed that the term tabun derived from the Arabic taban -hide’- which is related to the Hebrew taman while others translate the Arabic taban as ‘concealment’ or ‘intelligence’. The term is absent in the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud. The first documented use of the word tabun is in the writings of the 10th century AD Jerusalem native geographer al-Muqadassi, who described local baking thus:

“The people of Syria have ovens, and the villagers especially make use of the kind called tabun. These are small, and used for baking bread, and are dug in the ground. They line them with pebbles, and kindling the fire of dried dung within and above, they afterwards remove the hot ashes and place the loaves of bread to bake upon these pebbles, when they have become thus red-hot.”

The Tabun and its Misidentification in the Archaeological Record.   Jennie Ebeling and M. Rogel.  Levant, 2015, Vol. 47, No. 3.

Wikipedia defines a tabun as “a portable clay oven, shaped like a truncated cone.” Yet a second Wikipedia article says the tabun is “shaped like a large, bottomless earthenware pot turned upside down and fastened permanently to the ground.” They go on to talk about other types of ovens but, honestly, the placement of each type is so vague and mixed up that I can’t pull it together. We have tannour, furn, and more.

As Ebeling and Rogel point out, this is in fact the problem. Many ovens of this wider region (as well as other places around the world), in a huge timespan, have a fair bit of overlapping construction and/or features. So it’s easy to look to a modern example and say, this is what the older version (often in a different place) would have looked like. Writers will do this even if they have some archeological evidence, but it’s more common without bothering to find any.

[Alison M.] McQuitty documented traditional baking ovens in Jordan in 1983 and used this information to identify and describe ancient ovens. In an article published in 1984, she identified the earliest example of a tabun in Jordan at Iron Age Pella based on the following criteria:

“… on an archaeological site it would be expected to find a large area of fine white dung ash around the tabun with a concentration of darker burning and charcoal by the sanur … [i]n the 10th century BC levels at Pella, uncovered by the Australian team during their 1983-4 excavation season, such an arrangement was found. The use of tawabeen in antiquity therefore seems similar to that of today.”

She provided no other archaeological evidence for ancient tawabin in this article. 

The Tabun and its Misidentification in the Archaeological Record.   Jennie Ebeling and M. Rogel.  Levant, 2015, Vol. 47, No. 3.

New authors then quote these and other sources as if they had done the work. And the problem becomes worse. Ebeling and Rogel conclude:

There is no evidence for tawabin [pl. for tabun] in the Iron Age and the use of a modern Arabic term to describe ancient technology is anachronistic….

Nearly all of these accounts not only present an incoherent picture of ancient ovens based on limited ethnographic information: they also contradict the archaeological evidence. By using modern terminology, the present and past are mixed, and, in extreme cases, observable ethnographic phenomena are equated to 3000-year-old cooking technology. At best, these studies provide an inaccurate account of essential daily life activities; at worst, they denigrate a technology that is definitively associated with women and perpetuate the myth of the unchanging Arab.

The Tabun and its Misidentification in the Archaeological Record.   Jennie Ebeling and M. Rogel.  Levant, 2015, Vol. 47, No. 3.

What did an oven of the time look like?

So, given that Ebeling and Rogel “showed that no tabun-like ovens are known from archaeological contexts before the 7th century AD,” the next question, for me anyway, is what ovens did exist in New Kingdom Egypt, or even in contemporaneous nearby locations or earlier Ancient Egypt? For that, I think the best reference is Delwen Samuel’s excellent work on Egyptian breadmaking, especially her work examining the excavation of Amarna, the Egyptian capital city of the late eighteenth dynasty [early New Kingdom], established in 1346 BCE.

Perhaps the most obvious archaeological installation connected to baking is the bread oven. By New Kingdom times, the most common type was a thick walled sloping cylindrical form. The size varied depending on where the oven was located. In the large magazines associated with the Great and Small Aten temples and the temple of Kom el-Nana, the ovens are substantial, with individually built ovens measuring about a meter in outer diameter.

Associated with the much smaller Main Chapel complex of the Workmen’s village, in contrast, an oven in an outer room measured about half a metre across its outer diameter. These ovens, with their
thick walls, well-fired interior lining and often with accumulated ash and charcoal remains, should be easily detectable during excavation.

We have a good idea of how such ovens might have been heated and used because they closely resemble traditional Near Eastern “tannour” ovens. These have been used for millennia for baking in Near Eastern countries, although they are not used in traditional contemporary Egyptian baking. The interior is heated to baking temperature by building and maintaining a fire inside. When a sufficient bed of embers has accumulated, the sides are washed down to remove soot, and the bread can be baked either directly on the interior surface or for smaller versions, on the hot embers.

Who made bread and how at Amarna? By Delwen Samuel.  Akhetaten Sun 19(2): 2-7.  2013.

Samuel includes a picture of a modern “traditional” Syrian oven, where the opening is waist-high to the baker. But the pictures of the Amarna excavations show ovens that appear to be on the ground or floor, though she mentions that many were found on roofs. They are all round and about as deep as they are wide. They are all open on top and have small openings in the front which I’m guessing is to stoke or feed the fire. (You can see the pictures at the link for the reference; I’m not including them here for copyright reasons.)

Kitchen Tender being Rowed, detail, man tending oven (MET, 20.3.3). Middle Kingdom, Dynasty 12, reign of Amenemhat I, early.  [Note: called an oven but the openings don’t seem large enough to bake in.]Ovens in the museum in the tower (keep) of the monastery of El-Deir el-Mu’allaq, governorate of Asyut, Egypt, photo by Roland Unger, 2008. [Note: while to my eye these look similar to the Middle Kingdom picture, they come from The Mut Ethnographic Museum, built in 1785.]

Other Ways to Cook Bread

Bread can also be cooked in or on a pan or flat (or curved) surface that is more like a grill.

Two young Bedouins preparing and baking bread during a stop of a hiking group on the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt Florian Prischl/Wikimedia Commons, 2007.
“The group carried supplies of flour and water with them, out of which the man pictured left made a dough and shaped equally-sized round balls. After dusting it in flour and flattening the balls, the large and round dough was put on the metal hemisphere visible between the two men over an open fire to bake the bread in approximately four minutes.”

Or in a pan using a method that is more like working on a stove.

Preparing and Cooking Cakes, Tomb of Rekhmire, New Kingdom, ca. 1504–1425 B.C.  Art reproduction by Nina de Garis Davies (1881–1965). The Met.


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