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What's cooking in the Indus Civilisation? Investigating Indus food through ceramic lipid residue analysis



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Suryanarayan, Akshyeta  ORCID logo


This thesis investigates which products were used in ceramic vessels by populations of the Indus Civilisation through ceramic lipid residue analysis. It uses concepts of food choice and foodways to explore the culinary practices of Indus populations. Specifically, the thesis examines how vessels may have been used in urban and rural Indus settlements located in northwest India during the urban period (c. 2600/2500-1900 BC), and identifies whether changes in vessel use occurred in the post-urban period (c. 1900- 1300 BC). It also analyses a small sample of Arabian and Indus-origin vessels from the Umm an-Nar period (c. 2400-2000 BC) in the Sultanate of Oman. As the first large-scale investigation into Indus foodstuff and vessel-use using lipid residue analysis, the thesis first tests the viability of the method in the South Asian context. It compares lipid yields from pottery recovered from collections, washed pottery from recent excavations, and unwashed pottery from fresh excavations. It then integrates the molecular and compound-specific isotopic data with available bioarchaeological evidence from the study region to reconstruct which products were used in vessels at different sites. The results indicate that overall, lipid residues are typically poorly preserved in Indus vessels, but the acidified methanol extraction technique provides a good lipid recovery rate. No significant differences in lipid yield are observable between washed pottery samples and those collected directly from the field, which suggests that washed pottery may serve as a good source for samples for future lipid residue analysis. However, it is difficult to interpret lipid evidence from samples obtained from collections with limited contextual information, suggesting that future lipid analyses in South Asia must be carefully planned to yield optimum results. The molecular results indicate that animal fats were primarily used in vessels, with minor indications of plant products. The compound-specific results suggest processing of different animal fats, primarily non-ruminants, however, equivocally, many vessels may also have been used to store or process mixtures of products. Inter-site differences in vessel use are observed, but there are broad similarities in vessel-use between urban and rural sites. No change over time in vessel use is observed at rural sites, suggesting stability of food choices. No correlations are observed between vessel-form and products used in vessels, indicating their multifunctionality. These results provide a new means by which to investigate Indus foodways, broadening our understanding of what ancient Indus cuisine at both urban and rural settlements may have looked like.





Petrie, Cameron
O'Connell, Tamsin


Indus Civilisation, lipid residues, foodways, ceramics, climate change, South Asia


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Financial support for my PhD came from Cambridge Trust and Nehru Trust for Cambridge University. A very special thanks to Dr Anil Seal for his support. Parts of this research were carried out as part of the TwoRains project (, which is funded by a Horizon 2020 European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grant (H2020, 648609), and is based in the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge. TwoRains is being carried out in collaboration with Prof. Ravindra Nath Singh and the Department of AIHC and Archaeology at Banaras Hindu University. Funding was also obtained from Sidney Sussex College, Anthony Wilkin Trust, Smuts Memorial Fund and McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research for research and travel.
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