Summer Research Award Aids in Archaeological Study of Cheese

Thursday, June 7, 2012
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Hillary Christopher received a SURF award from the Hamel Center for Undergraduate Research.

Hillary Christopher received a SURF award from the Hamel Center for Undergraduate Research.

While some UNH students will spend the next few months working, or maybe even just kicking back, anthropology major Hillary Christopher will spend the summer studying cheese.

Christopher is one of more than 40 students to receive a 2012 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) from the Hamel Center for Undergraduate Research. Her project “Origins and Methods of Cheese Production in Neolithic Europe: An Archaeological Experiment,” will be supported by a $3,500 stipend.

SURF grants are awarded to students who want to conduct research during the summer at home or abroad. Christopher chose cheese because her archeological interests, in part, focus around the cultural, social and economic practices of food.

“While we do know a fair amount about the human diet, both past and present, there is either little evidence or research on how past cooked foods came to be. Today we often overlook the things we have in our refrigerator or pantry. Something like cheese is definitely one of these things. My project ultimately will synthesize the research that has been done on cheese (dairying and cooking in general, too) by trying to figure out how this food originated in the first place,” Christopher says.

“For example, if milk curdles by putting acid in it (like lemon juice) or by simply sitting in the sun too long, is that enough to make cheese? And then what are the benefits of cheese over milk (nutritionally, storage, etc.)? Looking at those things, I will also look into the archaeology side: what materials are used, like storage pots or strainers for separation of curds and whey.”

The origin of cheese predates recorded history. Christopher plans an archaeological study focusing on Europe, where there is evidence of early dairying starting in the Neolithic at 6000 BC. She will explore the methods originally used to make cheese, and the reasons cheese spread across societies. Her experiments will include making cheese with milk from a local farm that produces raw cow milk.

Her work will address cheese production and storing methods, asking how is milk is coagulated, how long can cheese stay fresh versus milk, how much more or less storage room and containers are needed for cheese versus milk. She also will look at the social significance, asking whether the amount of labor it takes to make cheese is significant enough that it would only be an elite foodstuff. Nutritionally she will explore the specific nutritional cost and benefits of transforming milk into cheese are and those of keeping a cow alive for dairy versus culling for meat.

“Through experimental work, I aim to provide insights into socioeconomic factors critical to the spread of cheese; the time involved to make cheese, the type and amount of materials and resources needed, the nutritional efficiency, and storage advantages,” Christopher says.

The nutritional analysis of the cheese will be done at UNH in the lab of Joanne Curran-Celentano, a nutrition professor and certified cheese maker. For her senior thesis, Christopher will evaluate her experimentally-derived data against an actual archaeological site where there is evidence of dairying (and elites), the Bronze Age site of Pecica in Romania.

For more information on SURF awards visit

Originally published by:

UNH Today

Written by Jody Record, UNH Media Relations