Sven Isaksson

Sven Isaksson


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Works at Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies
Telephone 08-674 73 67
Visiting address Wallenberglaboratoriet, Lilla Frescativägen 7
Room 219
Postal address Institutionen för arkeologi och antikens kultur 106 91 Stockholm

About me

My main research interest is on cultures of food and subsistence and how these change over long periods of time. This research has its place in the field of biomolecular archaeology. In combination with conventional archaeological evidence, as well as written sources, I use both molecular and isotopic analyses of food residues found adhering onto and adsorbed into ceramic vessels and anthropogenic soils. The chronology of my research spans from the Late Palaeolithic to the Late Modern era.

After my dissertation in June 2000 I was guestmember-of-staff at the Fossil Fuel and Environmental Geochemistry Newcastle Research Group, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, from November 2000 until March 2001. Since then I have been employed as an externally financed researcher at the Archaeological Research Laboratory and at the Center for the Study of Cultural Evolution, both located at the Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies, Stockholm University. During this time I have been the Principle Investigator of three, and co-applicant in four, externally financed research projects (see below). Since August 2016 I have a permanent position as Lecturer in Archaeological Science at the Archaeological Research Laboratory, Stockholm University, and from October 2016 I am engaged as supervisior within the Marie Skłodowska-Curie European Joint Doctoral Training Site ArchSci 2020.


As Principle Investigator:

2007-2010: A Spartan way of life? On the culture of food and subsistence in Bronze Age Sweden. The Swedish Research Council.

2002-2007: Research Fellowship (Bidrag för rekryteringsanställning som forskarassistent i arkeologi, samt Tilläggsbidrag till anställning som forskarassistent (arkeologi).) The Swedish Research Council.

2001-2005: By House and Hearth - The chemistry of culture layers as a document of the subsistence of prehistoric man. Co-applicant: Björn Hjulström. The Swedish Research Council.

2001 06 01-2001 08 31: Tracing ancient vegetable foods. The Royal Swedish Academy of Science.

As Co-applicant:

2013-2014: Whey to go - detecting prehistoric dairying practices in Scandinavia. Principal Investigator: Prof. K. Lidén, Stockholm University. Co-applicants: Dr. Sven Isaksson, Dr. Gunilla Eriksson. The Berit Wallenberg Foundation.

2011-2014: Ceramics before Farming: Prehistoric Pottery Dispersals in Northeast Asia. Principle Investigator: Dr P. Jordan, University of Aberdeen, UK. Co-applicants: Dr B. Fitzhugh, University of Washington (USA), Dr I. S. Zhushchikhovskaya, Russ.Acad.Sci. (Russia), Prof. H. Kato (Project Associate), University of Sapporo (Hokkaido), Dr S. Isaksson (Project Associate), Stockholm University (Sweden), Dr P. S. Quinn, University of Sheffield (UK). The UK Leverhulme Trust.

2010-2013: Uniquely Human. Principal Investigator: Prof. M. Enquist, Stockholm University. Co-applicants: Prof. Stefano Ghirlanda, Dr Sven Isaksson, Dr Johan Lind. The Swedish Research Council.

2007-2009: Cultaptation – "Dynamics and adaptation in human cumulative culture". Coordinator: Prof. Kimmo Eriksson. Other Principal Investigators:  Prof. Magnus Enquist, Prof. Stefano Ghirlanda, Prof. Kevin Laland, Prof. Kerstin Lidén, Prof. Pierluigi Contucci, Prof. Arne Jarrick. Co-applicants: Hanna Aronsson, Micael Ehn, Lewis Dean, Dr. Gunilla Eriksson, Dr Sven Isaksson, Fredrik Jansson, Dr. Jeremy Kendal, Elin Fornander, Dr. Jonas Sjöstrand, Dr. Luke Rendell, Pontus Strimling, Dr. Niklas Janz, Dr. Johan Lind and Christina Schierman. EUs 6th Framwork program.

Academic Awards

2008: From Societas Archaeologica Upsaliensis for “his successful, multidisciplinary effort to combine the natural sciences and the humanities, by skillfully and inventively merging his own biomolecular and archaeological analyses and interpretations.”

2001: From Swedish Royal Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities, for “meritorious scientific work (Food and Rank in Early Medieval Time)”.


A selection from Stockholm University publication database
  • 2018. Alexandre Lucquin (et al.). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 115 (31), 7931-7936

    The invention of pottery was a fundamental technological advancement with far-reaching economic and cultural consequences. Pottery containers first emerged in East Asia during the Late Pleistocene in a wide range of environmental settings, but became particularly prominent and much more widely dispersed after climatic warming at the start of the Holocene. Some archaeologists argue that this increasing usage was driven by environmental factors, as warmer climates would have generated a wider range of terrestrial plant and animal resources that required processing in pottery. However, this hypothesis has never been directly tested. Here, in one of the largest studies of its kind, we conducted organic residue analysis of >800 pottery vessels selected from 46 Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene sites located across the Japanese archipelago to identify their contents. Our results demonstrate that pottery had a strong association with the processing of aquatic resources, irrespective of the ecological setting. Contrary to expectations, this association remained stable even after the onset of Holocene warming, including in more southerly areas, where expanding forests provided new opportunities for hunting and gathering. Nevertheless, the results indicate that a broader array of aquatic resources was processed in pottery after the start of the Holocene. We suggest this marks a significant change in the role of pottery of hunter-gatherers, corresponding to an increased volume of production, greater variation in forms and sizes, the rise of intensified fishing, the onset of shellfish exploitation, and reduced residential mobility.

  • 2017. Ester Oras (et al.). Journal of Mass Spectrometry 52 (10), 689-700

    Soft‐ionization methods are currently at the forefront of developing novel methods for analysing degraded archaeological organic residues. Here, we present little‐used soft ionization method of matrix assisted laser desorption/ionization‐Fourier transform‐ion cyclotron resonance‐mass spectrometry (MALDI‐FT‐ICR‐MS) for the identification of archaeological lipid residues. It is a high‐resolution and sensitive method with low limits of detection capable of identifying lipid compounds in small concentrations, thus providing a highly potential new technique for the analysis of degraded lipid components. A thorough methodology development for analysing cooked and degraded food remains from ceramic vessels was carried out, and the most efficient sample preparation protocol is described. The identified components, also controlled by independent parallel analysis by gas chromatography‐mass spectrometry (GC‐MS) and gas chromatography‐combustion‐isotope ratio mass spectrometry (GC‐C‐IRMS), demonstrate its capability of identifying very different food residues including dairy, adipose fats as well as lipids of aquatic origin. The results obtained from experimentally cooked and original archaeological samples prove the suitability of MALDI‐FT‐ICR‐MS for analysing archaeological organic residues. Sample preparation protocol and identification of compounds provide future reference for analysing various aged and degraded lipid residues in different organic and mineral matrices.

  • 2016. Alexandre Lucquin (et al.). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 113 (15), 3991-3996

    The earliest pots in the world are from East Asia and date to the LatePleistocene. However, ceramic vessels were only produced in largenumbers during the warmer and more stable climatic conditions ofthe Holocene. It has long been assumed that the expansion of potterywas linked with increased sedentism and exploitation of newresources that became available with the ameliorated climate, butthis hypothesis has never been tested. Through chemical analysis oftheir contents, we herein investigate the use of pottery across anexceptionally long 9,000-y sequence from the Jo¯mon site of Torihamainwestern Japan, intermittently occupied from the Late Pleistocene tothe mid-Holocene. Molecular and isotopic analyses of lipids from 143vessels provides clear evidence that pottery across this sequence waspredominantly used for cooking marine and freshwater resources,with evidence for diversification in the range of aquatic productsprocessed during the Holocene. Conversely, there is little indicationthat ruminant animals or plants were processed in pottery, althoughit is evident from the faunal and macrobotanical remains that thesefoods were heavily exploited. Supported by other residue analysisdata from Japan, our results show that the link between potteryand fishing was established in the Late Paleolithic and lasted wellinto the Holocene, despite environmental and socio-economic change.Cooking aquatic products in pottery represents an enduring socialaspect of East Asian hunter–gatherers, a tradition based on a dependabletechnology for exploiting a sustainable resource in an uncertainand changing world.

  • 2016. Sven Isaksson. Överleva 77 (1), 34-43
  • Chapter Pots in Context
    2016. Ludvig Papmehl-Dufay (et al.). In dialogue, 55-66
  • 2015. Sven Isaksson (et al.). PLoS ONE 10 (5)

    Here we present an analytical technique for the measurement and evaluation of changes in chronologically sequenced assemblages. To illustrate the method, we studied the cultural evolution of European cooking as revealed in seven cook books dispersed over the past 800 years. We investigated if changes in the set of commonly used ingredients were mainly gradual or subject to fashion fluctuations. Applying our method to the data from the cook books revealed that overall, there is a clear continuity in cooking over the ages - cooking is knowledge that is passed down through generations, not something (re-) invented by each generation on its own. Looking at three main categories of ingredients separately (spices, animal products and vegetables), however, disclosed that all ingredients do not change according to the same pattern. While choice of animal products was very conservative, changing completely sequentially, changes in the choices of spices, but also of vegetables, were more unbounded. We hypothesize that this may be due a combination of fashion fluctuations and changes in availability due to contact with the Americas during our study time period. The presented method is also usable on other assemblage type data, and can thus be of utility for analyzing sequential archaeological data from the same area or other similarly organized material.

Show all publications by Sven Isaksson at Stockholm University

Last updated: January 10, 2019

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