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Archaeologists Find Ancient Pot With Traces of 3,000-Year-Old Burnt Cheese

This ancient mishap gives researchers a peek into Bronze Age life

A 3,000-year-old clay pot with cheese residue found burnt to the bottom. (Museum Silkeborg, Denmark)
smithsonian.com

Anyone who has ever left something on the stove for too long knows the intimate pain of struggling to scrub burnt remains off the bottom of the pan. Depending on how badly it went, it can even be tempting to just toss the whole thing in the trash. Luckily for a group of archaeologists, 3,000 years ago someone living in what is now Denmark decided to do just that.

Though finding traces of food in ancient cookware isn’t unheard of, archaeologists more commonly find flour or grains. But when researchers with Denmark’s Museum Silkeborg uncovered a cooking pot tossed in an ancient trash heap, they were amazed to find the charred remains of someone’s dinner still intact, Mikkel Andreas Beck reports for Science Nordic.

“It’s an unusual find. You don’t often find these types of deposits. In general, it’s really rare to find such traces from these old objects,” Mads Chr. Christensen, a chemist with the Danish National Museum who analyzed the long-burnt meal, tells Beck.

The pot, which was made of clay, is remarkable enough on its own, considering little cookware of its kind has survived the millennia. But when the researchers analyzed the residue remaining on the bottom, they were surprised to find that it contained traces of fat typically found in cow dairy, Rossella Lorenzi reports for Discovery News. According to the researchers, this suggests that the remains could be left behind from a failed attempt at making cheese.

“The fat could be a part of the last traces of curds used during the original production of traditional hard cheese. The whey is boiled down, and it contains a lot of sugars, which in this way can be preserved and stored for the winter,” archaeologist Kaj Rasmussen, whose team found the pot, tells Beck. “It is the same method used to make brown, Norwegian whey cheese, where you boil down the whey, and what’s left is a caramel-like mass that is turned into the brown cheese that we know today from the supermarket chiller cabinet.”

Though burning a meal—and ruining a pot—is unfortunate in modern times, this ancient home chief couldn’t just stroll down to the store to buy a replacement. It would have taken time and energy to craft a new pot out of clay—a lot of effort for someone struggling to survive 3,000 years ago, The Local reports.

This certainly isn't the oldest traces of cheesemaking, an art that stretches back thousands of years. But it gives another peek into life in the Bronze Age.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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