Stockholm university

Sven Isaksson

About me

I am a professor of Archaeological Science. This means that I work with a wide range of analytical/scientific techniques in order to extract more information from the fragmented source material of archaeology. 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 between 2016 and 2021 I was engaged as supervisior within the Marie Skłodowska-Curie European Joint Doctoral Training Site ArchSci 2020. Since 2020 I am involved in a project on the impact of three major climate events on prehistoric coastal communities. I teach archaeological science at both undergraduate and graduate levels, both in the laboratory and in the field. Through my expertise in the application of archaeological science in archaeological fieldwork, I lead archaeological investigations at Birka (UNESCO World Heritage Site) on Björkö in Lake Mälaren together with colleagues. Since 2021, I am involved in the Nordic-Japanese research programme CALDERA - Long-term cultural responses to major natural disasters, which aims to investigate the long-term cultural responses of hunter-gatherer societies to major natural disasters. The aim is to understand the processes of survival, adaptation and recovery, and the ways in which long-term interactions between humans, animals and the environment have influenced the emergence of new cultural lifestyle choices. Members of the programme are based at Lund and Stockholm Universities in Sweden and at Kanazawa and Kyushu Universities in Japan. And as of 2023, I am involved in the management group of the research programme "Crisis, Conflict and Climate - Social Change in Scandinavia 300-700" financed by the Riksbankens Jubileumsfond and am also a researcher in the same program.


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:

2020-2023: How to deal with environmental change – the impact of three major environmental events on prehistoric coastal societies and their main prey species. Principal Investigator: Prof. K. Lidén, Stockholm University. Co-applicants: Dr. Gunilla Eriksson, Dr. Aikaterini Glykou, Dr. Sven Isaksson. The Swedish Research Council.

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

  • Early pottery use across the Baltic – A comparative lipid residue study on Ertebølle and Narva ceramics from coastal hunter-gatherer sites in southern Scandinavia, northern Germany and Estonia

    2019. Vasiliki Papakosta, Ester Oras, Sven Isaksson. Journal of Archaeological Science 24, 142-151


    The Late Mesolithic Ertebølle and Narva cultures (6th – 5th/4th millennium BC) in the southwest and eastern Baltic, respectively, shared similar vessel types, namely pointed-based pots and oval bowls. As a consequence, this phenomenon raised questions about inter-cultural connections across the Baltic and possible influence for the production of pottery from the Narva to the Ertebølle hunter-gatherers. Whereas the two pottery traditions were shown to be different with regards to raw materials and manufacture, in this study we further attempt a comparison on the basis of function using a lipid residue analysis approach. The aim is to examine whether typological analogies were based on common functional requirements. This paper presents new evidence for the use of Ertebølle ceramics in the southwest Baltic from the analysis of pottery samples from a number of coastal sites in southern Sweden (Scania) and eastern Denmark (Lolland). Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC–MS) and gas chromatography-combustion-isotope ratio mass spectrometry (GC-c-IRMS) analysis were performed on the absorbed lipid residues to determine their structural characteristics and the stable carbon isotopic composition of selected fatty acids. Results are discussed and compared with analogous published data of Narva ceramics from Estonia. Data from other coastal sites in Denmark and northern Germany are also included for wider comparison. Based on our findings, we conclude that despite little variability in the isotope values of residues, Ertebølle and Narva pots did not serve the same functional demands, and different motives led to their production. Whilst the Narva ceramics appear to have had a specialized role in processing aquatic products, the Ertebølle were more multi-purpose vessels, used also for terrestrial animal and plant resources.

    Read more about Early pottery use across the Baltic – A comparative lipid residue study on Ertebølle and Narva ceramics from coastal hunter-gatherer sites in southern Scandinavia, northern Germany and Estonia
  • The impact of environmental change on the use of early pottery by East Asian hunter-gatherers

    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.

    Read more about The impact of environmental change on the use of early pottery by East Asian hunter-gatherers
  • GCMS analyses of direct methylated lipids in binders used in 18th-19th century folk painted interiors in Halsingland, Sweden

    2019. Yvonne Fors, Sven Isaksson. Journal of Archaeological Science 23, 127-136


    Paint fragments were collected from painted 18th and 19th century interiors from traditional buildings in Halsingland, Sweden. The aim was to identify binders used by the artists by direct-methylation and GCMS analyses of the lipid fraction in the samples. The lipid content was categorized as mainly animal, plant-based or mixed. The study indicates that used colour tone and possibly also underlying foundation (wood, paper or textile) is essential for the artists' choice of binder components. Animal-lipid based compounds were found to be used for a wide variety of colours, including mixed colour and several light colour tones. Animal and sometimes mixed lipids seem also to be characteristic for colour fragments from paper and textiles. Red, black and blue colours are quite common among the mixed-lipid category. However, half of blue, green and black colours were found in the vegetable lipid group. A tendency towards the plant-lipids was also indicated in colour samples painted on wood. Many different forms of terpenoids were found among the wood samples, suggesting that its origin can be traced mainly to wood composites, such as extractives.

    Read more about GCMS analyses of direct methylated lipids in binders used in 18th-19th century folk painted interiors in Halsingland, Sweden
  • MALDI‐FT‐ICR‐MS for archaeological lipid residue analysis

    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.

    Read more about MALDI‐FT‐ICR‐MS for archaeological lipid residue analysis
  • Ancient lipids document continuity in the use of earlyhunter–gatherer pottery through 9,000 years of Japanese prehistory

    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.

    Read more about Ancient lipids document continuity in the use of earlyhunter–gatherer pottery through 9,000 years of Japanese prehistory
  • A Novel Method to Analyze Social Transmission in Chronologically Sequenced Assemblages, Implemented on Cultural Inheritance of the Art of Cooking

    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.

    Read more about A Novel Method to Analyze Social Transmission in Chronologically Sequenced Assemblages, Implemented on Cultural Inheritance of the Art of Cooking

Show all publications by Sven Isaksson at Stockholm University