A valuable ancient commodity: Miltos of Kea

By Effie Photos-Jones

The island of Kea in the North Cyclades is by some travel agents’ reckoning the (rich) Athenians’ ‘best-kept secret’, their beautifully-designed stone-built villas merging seamlessly with the barren landscape overlooking the blue Aegean Sea (Fig 1).

Fig. 1 Private house in Orkos, looking east. To the SE on can see the island of Kythnos. (c) Effie Photos-Jones

The scenery is even more spectacular in the south and in the east of the island. Although sparsely populated today, this area was from the mid of the 19th century and well into the early part of the 20th century, a hive of activity, on account of the extensive underground workings of the seams of lead and iron ores. Today, miners’ cottages stand derelict, perhaps waiting for a buyer to convert them into holiday homes. But the ground underneath Petroussa, Orkos or Trypospilies (Fig 2 map) is riddled with galleries, some dating as early as the 4th century BCE. These early galleries were opened with one aim in mind: to access miltos (Fig. 3c).

Fig. 2. A map of Kea with its four ancient city states and the miltos names Orkos, Petroussa, Trypospilies. (c) Effie Photos-Jones

The material they called miltos is a composite one consisting of naturally fine iron oxides (hematite/goethite) with small amounts of calcite, quartz and clay minerals. It made its first appearance in the Bronze Age Linear B clay tablets  as mi-to-we-sa. The Mycenaeans, acutely aware of colours, had many names for red, miltos being, we think, a red with a deep purple hue. It would be many centuries before Kea miltos would surface again in the literary record, always as the colour red but also as a whole host of materials whose colour merited that name. In the 4th century BCE Theophrastus (On Stones, 52) tells us that builders and joiners used it to draw a line with, workers in shipyards used it for ship maintenance and if the miltos came from the island of Lemnos, then it was used as a medicine, as well, and against ‘poison’.

From the above it is clear that miltos was a valuable commodity. But how valuable? An Athenian decree carved on a marble inscription found in the Athenian Agora and dated c. 360 BCE tells us exactly how valuable. The decree was issued by Athens to all the three city states of Kea (Ioulis, Korisseia and Karthaia (Fig. 2) requiring each one of them to export miltos in its entirety from their respective mines, exclusively to Athens; also for the Keans to bear the charges for the transport and only in an Athenian boat! The tone is severe and the penalties dire. The decree appears to openly invite a slave to denounce his master, if the latter is suspected of selling his miltos to a third party. It stipulates that the slave would be gaining not only his freedom but would also receive half of his masters’ estate!

Another contemporary inscription, more informative than severe, also from Athens mentions miltos mixed with pitch, the miltopissa. And at an even later date (3rd century CE), the author of an agricultural manual, recommends miltos for pest control. It suggests miltos should be smeared around the roots of trees ‘to prevent trees and vines from being harmed by worms or anything else’.

So what was the rationale behind all these diverse uses of miltos? was it a case of ‘since we have it …we might as well use it!’ or did antiquity have a more subtle understanding of this valuable natural material which has so far eluded us? We have been investigating….

As was mentioned miltos consists of very fine iron oxides with particle sizes ranging in the nanosized range. There are also impurities of lead, zinc, copper and arsenic within. But beyond its mineral components, Kean miltos also had an organic load. By that we mean microorganisms like bacteria, fungi and other which live around miltos, are feeding on miltos and also alter the environment around it (Fig 3). We became aware of these microorganisms through DNA sequencing of the miltos samples. Given that red Kean miltos was never heated but used in the ‘as was’ state it is almost certain that these microorganisms would have been carried along with the minerals. When the microorganisms died, they would release biomolecules (secondary metabolites), many of which are known to have numerous beneficial properties, as antibacterials, antifungals, antioxidants or other.

The diagram below (Fig. 4) gives a schematic illustration of the dual nature of Kean miltos, as a combination of both a biotic (microorganisms and biomolecules) and an abiotic (elements, nanoparticles, minerals) component.  It is the ‘intersection’ between the two components that gives rise to miltos’ diverse applications.

Fig. 4. Miltos’ diverse properties deriving from their biotic and abiotic components. (c) Effie Photos-Jones

When miltos is mixed with resin or pitch and applied on wood it is the toxic trace elements within which would inhibit the growth of deleterious biofilms. The same mixture could be used as pest control, by preventing the growth of microorganisms/ insects threatening tree health. If on the other hand, when miltos was mixed with water, the toxic trace elements within, mostly insoluble, would have little effect. Instead, it would be its biome, in the shape of bacteria which help the growth of plants, by making nutrients bioavailable at the root level, which would render miltos a good fertiliser. In short, each application appears, to have called upon and with confidence, either the biotic or abiotic component of miltos depending on the ‘problem’ at hand. No wonder the Athenians were taking no chances with the Keans and their miltos.

We have for long considered miltos a good and ‘special’ red pigment. But all along, it has been way more than that. The Athenians had made a shrewd assessment of this natural material and as an all-powerful city state they imposed their might on their allies. With the demise of the Athenian hegemony in the region, the importance of Kean miltos faded only to give prominence to that of Cappadocia traded through its Black Sea port of Sinope (Sinopic miltos).

Further Reading

Lytle, E. (2013). Farmers Into Sailors: Ship Maintenance, Greek Agriculture, and the Athenian Monopoly on Kean Ruddle (IG II 2 1128). Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies, 53(3), 520-550.

Photos-Jones, E., Cottier, A., Hall, A. J., & Mendoni, L. G. (1997). Kean Miltos: The well-known iron oxides of antiquity. The Annual of the British School at Athens, 92, 359-371.

Photos-Jones, E. et al. (2018). Greco-Roman mineral (litho) therapeutics and their relationship to their microbiome: The case of the red pigment miltos. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 22, 179-192.

Effie Photos-Jones

Glasgow, UK

EPJ is a Senior Honorary Researcher at the University of Glasgow at the Schools of Humanities and of Earth and Geographical Sciences. She has been researching the metals and industrial minerals of the Greco-Roman world for over 40 years and more recently their pharmacological applications












Powerful Bundles: The Materiality of Protection Amulets in Early Modern Switzerland

By Eveline Szarka

If you shop around for a protection amulet today, you will most likely stumble upon ornamental jewellery. More often than not these pieces are round in shape, and pieces featuring Kabbalistic or runic symbols are especially popular. The term ‘amulet’ is described as a “piece of jewellery some people wear because they think it protects them from bad luck, illness, etc” in the OED. However, when it comes to premodern protection practices, the efficacy of amulets depended on both the production process and the materials and ingredients used. There are two additional significant differences between contemporary and early modern understandings and applications of amulets: First, in early modern Europe, amulets were not only carried around as mobile objects but also attached to houses or buried into the thresholds. Second, amulets were often used to protect valuable livestock against diseases thought to be caused by supernatural agents.

In my research, I understand amulets as powerful bundles, often of diverse materials, which take effect through physical contact between the amulet and the object (person, animal, house) to be protected. As I discuss below, the materials commonly used include herbs, plants, food stuff, words (both spoken and written) and time. For example, it was believed that gathering plants at a certain time of the day or on a holiday enhanced the amulet’s power.

While many recipe books containing instructions on how to make amulets are now lost, it is a stroke of luck that some 17th and 18th-century handbooks are still preserved in the State Archive of the Canton of Berne, Switzerland thanks to early 20th century folklorists and collectors. Unfortunately, these books are difficult to date and connect with specific authors, owners and users. However, comparisons with court documents show that people commonly produced and applied amulets throughout the early modern period. For example, in a court case in Basel 1719, a folk healer called Friedrich Fritschi defended himself for putting hazel rods underneath a window as a way to protect the house owner from a spectre.[i] Although we do not know much about these books, the recipes and the arrangements of the instructions offer valuable insights into the contemporary relevance and ideas about the efficacy of such practices and artefacts. For instance, instructions about the production of amulets are written alongside suggestions on how to get rid of cheese-eating mice, indicating that the production of amulets against evil forces belonged to everyday house care (Hauspflege) .

Basic materials and ingredients of an amulet: linen, a cord, rods, plants, salt and bread. Source. E. Szarka

Let us now turn to an example that illustrates the concepts underpinning the efficacy of the protection amulet:

To insert into houses and barns in case of foul ghosts

Take some good vines, rods, melissa, brown periwinkles, communion bread and salt, [and bind] everything together in the three holy names with a string. Make as many as you need and drill [a hole] in both the barn and above the doors and thresholds. Put a small bundle in every hole and speak: “I put you in here in the name of God”.[ii]

This instruction exemplifies the three main production steps required to ensure the efficacy of the early modern amulet. First, people needed to gather the listed materials and ingredients. Some plants were commonly believed to be inherently powerful against evil forces, such as hazel rods. Salt and communion bread – liturgically and ritually blessed objects (so-called “sacramentals”) – were reoccurring ingredients in these kinds of recipes. Sometimes, makers also used or added slips of paper furnished with bible verses to the amulet to intensify its efficacy. Second, one had to mix the materials and ingredients, form a bundle and tie it with a string. Finally, the amulet had to be applied accordingly. It could be attached to an animal’s neck, to a door, buried into the thresholds or hidden in a drill hole above the house so that it kept malevolent entities from entering. People considered uttering sacred words both during the production and application process to be highly potent.

Drill hole in a wooden beam for a protection amulet found in an 18th century house in rural Basel, State Archive of the Canton of Basel-Land, SL 5250.5024. Source: E. Szarka

As we have seen, the gathering of materials and ingredients, the production as well as the application of the amulet were considered necessary consecutive steps to accumulate divine power. The ingredients were either inherently powerful or charged with sanctity in a liturgical context. Language, both uttered orally during these three steps or added in the form of paper slips, formed essential material ingredients that enhanced the amulet’s efficacy as it drew upon divine power. Similarly, the timing of the production could play a crucial role. For example, one had to collect the plants or apply the amulet at a particular holiday or a sacred time of the day. Time, just like language, acted as a “material” component charged with sacred power that could be transferred to the amulet through the specific production circumstances. Once applied to houses or animals, these effective little packages containing both visible and invisible materialities provided a metaphysical shield to unseen forces.

As I argue in my dissertation on ghosts and spirits in Post-Reformation Switzerland[iii], early modern people believed the world to be permeated by multiple invisible forces. Handling constant supernatural attacks from spirits and witches called for specific measures. Women and men tried to tackle and manipulate the supernatural sphere with elaborate rituals written down in recipe books. Practices concerned with amulet making disclose different concepts of causal relations in the physical and metaphysical world. Above all, they mirror a specific understanding of materiality, according to which certain plants and aliments, but also language and time, contain power that people can accumulate, enhance, and transfer to other materials, places and living beings to preserve their living environments.

[i] State Archive of the Canton of Basel, Criminalia 4, 22.

[ii] State Archive of the Canton of Berne, DQ 888, translated from the original German text by E. Szarka.

[iii] Eveline Szarka, Sinn für Gespenster. Spukphänomene in der reformierten Schweiz (1570-1730), doctoral thesis at the University of Zurich, 2020, upcoming Spring 2021.


Academic biography:

Eveline Szarka completed her PhD at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Her dissertation focuses on the impact of the Protestant Reformation on the belief in ghosts and specters in Switzerland from 1570-1730. This year, she was granted a scholarship from the Swiss National Science Foundation to visit Harvard University and University College London from 2020-2022 as a postdoctoral fellow. However, due to the pandemic, she will likely postpone the start of the fellowship until 2021. Eveline’s  upcoming project focuses on handbooks about magic tricks and life hacks as related to the history of knowledge and science (1650-1850). Her research interests lie in early modern world views, historical conceptions of (im)materiality, causality, and magic as well as the potentials of human manipulation of the physical world.


Eating Through the Seasons: Food Education in Japan

By Alexis Agliano Sanborn

Children participate in food education lesson. Credit: Nourishing Japan

Seasons have been celebrated in Japanese society for centuries through poetry and prose. During the Edo-period (1603-1868) this appreciation of nature codified in the creation of the saijiki, or, poetic seasonal almanacs. These almanacs, notes Columbia University Professor Haruno Shirane, “systematically categorize almost all aspects of nature and much of human activity by the cycle of the four seasons.” Without a doubt, food and food production are important seasonal markers.

In the modern era this appreciation of seasonality continues in new forms. Food knowledge has come to be combined with lessons of hygiene, food safety, food production, cultivation of healthy diets, and other teachings through food education, or shokuiku. Food education became law in 2005 which outlined the goals and provisions for local and national support of activities to foster an understanding of a healthy diet and appreciation of food and food production.

One of the biggest beneficiaries of food education are children, who learn about food and diet through classes and hands-on experiences in and out of school. One of the primary ways they learn about food is through their daily school lunch. School lunches use local and seasonal ingredients and serve as a way for children to taste and understand where food comes from, how it is produced, and how the food and themselves are connected to the environment.

Caption: A farmer who contributes to school lunch harvests cabbage in the field. Credit: Nourishing Japan

Food education as taught in schools almost serves as a de facto culinary saijiki. Children come to remember the seasonal or even monthly association to a certain food. The loquats of early to mid-summer will give way to the eggplants and figs of late summer. The month of March almost always include the na-no-hana, the edible rape blossom with a mustard-like taste that is often cooked into rice as part of the daily meal. The month of October is characterized by chestnuts, sweet potato harvests and wild boar. Eating according to the season – shun – has a long history in Japan, but one that is in danger of being lost as diets change and evolve in a globalized world.  Even if cantaloupes may now be available in the grocery store year round, children in school experience teachings rooted in the cycle of the seasons.

The na-no-hana flower

Just as strict adherence to the saijiki in haiku composition does not offer much room for deviation, so too does the seasonal culinary calendar tend to keep ingredients in their time and place. Nevertheless, there seems a certain innate joy and comfort to see the return of specific ingredients again and again at a prescribed time every year.

While food education is itself a complex and nuanced topic, the cherishing of seasons and nature as viewed through food is an undeniable hallmark and one that helps to re-forge connections to nature and the world around us.

If you would like to learn more about food education and school lunch in Japan, visit Alexis’ web page to learn more about her documentary film Nourishing Japan. 


Shirane, Haruo, Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons (New York: Columbia University, 2013), xii.

Waste Not, Want Not: Kelp, Cans and MAP: Packaging as Food Preservation

By Anne Murcott

Starting work on a history of food packaging some years ago, rapidly led to the realisation that it is also a history of a very long list of other things, including food preservation.  But preparing a contribution for a conference called ‘Waste Not Want Not’ prompted looking at both the preservation and packaging of food from a slightly different angle.  The two are intimately linked in a way that other relevant histories – such as of transport or the cold chain, the invention of plastic films or the very idea of convenience – associated with the development of food packaging are less so.  For most food preservation techniques involve a wrapping, receptacle or package for storage – exceptions include meats or fruits that are dried solid, biltong or jerky, apple or pear.    

Here are three illustrations which all happen to exploit the significance of oxygen when preserving foodstuffs.  The first two involve drastically reducing atmospheric oxygen pretty much to create a vacuum.  The third entails changing the proportion of oxygen in relation to the other main gases in the air we all breathe, modifying the atmosphere in the package. 

The first example dates from prehistoric New Zealand.  It is a Māori technique for preserving tītī commonly known in English as mutton bird – a fish-eating sooty sheerwater found in Australasia.  A bag, pōhā, is made of split bull kelp which is then inflated then filled with cooked birds sealed with their own fat.  Bags are then placed in woven flax baskets and can be secured with strips of bark for safe handling and transport.

Nereocystis or ‘bull kelp’. A prehistoric algae used by The Māori to preserve tītī (mutton bird). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Next is the history of the ubiquitous tin can.  Nicolas Appert, a French confectioner (1749-1841) is often called the ‘father of canning’.  He published details of his invention – translated as a way ‘of conserving all kinds of food substances in containers’ in 1810.  Within a few months, an Englishman, Peter Durand, was granted a patent by George III that is virtually identical to Appert’s method.   Duran sold the patent to Bryan Donkin, an engineer who already owned the Dartford Iron Works near London and who in 1813 opened a ‘preservatory’ i.e. canning factory in Blue Anchor Road, Bermondsey, London.  The ‘great man’ solo inventor version of the history does not seem to be disturbed by the fact that only a few months separate Appert’s treatise being published in French in France and Durand’s being granted the patent published in English in England.  It is important to remember, this is a time when confectioners, merchants and engineers may not have spoken a second language and a period when both countries were politically extremely wary of one another, if not actually at war. 

 One interpretation depends on suggestions of industrial espionage – casting Donkin as a spy.  Not so well known, however, is a 1994 PhD by Norman Cowell, a retired food scientist who has worked through the archives of the Royal Society and the National Archives.  He has identified a second Frenchman, an inventor called Philippe de Girard, who came to London and used Durand as an agent to patent what was apparently his own idea.  Cowell finds strong circumstantial evidence that Appert and Girard were in contact.  Thus he is led to propose that Durand can no longer ‘be seen as a naked opportunist pirating Appert’s invention: instead he appears as a London agent facilitating the exploitation by Girard (and probably Appert) of their inventions in the more technologically advanced world of British industry.’

Portrait of Nicolas Appert, inventor of food canning in 1795, tiré de Les Artisans illustres de Foucaud, anonymous woodcut, circa 1841. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Where the first two examples involved eliminating oxygen, the third postpones the food’s spoiling, by altering the percentage of this gas relative to carbon dioxide and nitrogen surrounding the foodstuff in proportions that differ from the air everyone breathes. One history identifies a turning point in the spread of Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) technology when, in 1981 Marks and Spencer (in the UK) introduced a wide range of fresh meat products packaged under a modified atmosphere.  The use in the UK of MAP is labelled on the pack.  But the wording avoids the word modified, using ‘Packaged in a protective atmosphere’ instead. 

These three examples illustrate the following among other features.  While it is very well known that food preservation is found worldwide and is very old indeed, so too can be what nowadays is called packaging.  The second example illustrates how a history of an invention is not necessarily best written as solely springing from the efforts of a ‘great man’ and the socio-political context should not, of course, be ignored.  And the third once again demonstrates that there are some food preservation technologies that cannot work without a package.