It may not look appetizing now, but archaeologists are practically drooling over a small blackened cake recovered from a dig site in Lübeck, Germany, reports Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA). Reduced to a crisp by a March 1942 British bombing raid, the World War II–era dessert still features shriveled swirls of icing carefully applied by a baker.
“Although it is heavily charred and blackened with soot on the outside, the heat has shrunk [it] to only a third of its original height,” says Lisa Renn, excavation manager for the city’s archaeological team, in a statement, per Google Translate.
Researchers found the eerily preserved artifact in the basement of a home that collapsed following the attack, which the British Royal Air Force (RAF) carried out in retaliation for a 1940 Nazi bombing raid on the English city of Coventry, reports Mindy Weisberger for Live Science. What’s left of the hazelnut-and-almond cake includes remnants of nut fillings, as well as a wax paper covering.
Manfred Schneider, head of Lübeck’s archaeology department, tells DPA that a cavity formed under the building’s rubble protected the cake from the heat and ensured it wasn’t crushed. Seventy-nine years later, the sweet treat is “blackened by soot but still easily recognizable,” Schneider says.
The well-preserved cake is the first of its kind found in the region. No “comparable survivors” have been found in Hamburg or Dresden, two German cities similarly devastated by Allied bombings, notes the History Blog.
According to the statement, the cake was likely prepared in the house’s kitchen. Nearby, researchers discovered a coffee service and fine crockery; the house’s owner, local merchant Johann Wärme, may have laid out the spread for a celebration commemorating Palm Sunday. (The bombing unfolded on the night of Saturday, March 28, and the early morning hours of the March 29 Christian holiday.) The team also uncovered a gramophone and several records, including Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and Ninth Symphony.
Founded in 1143, Lübeck is home to a trove of archaeological treasures. Experts have discovered more than four million artifacts in and around the Unesco World Heritage Site to date.
“The subsoil is made of clay, so the preservation for organic material is awesome,” Dirk Rieger, head of archaeology for Lübeck’s Historic Monuments Protection Authority, tells Live Science. “You dig down like [23 feet], and you are in the 1100s. We have every single feature of urban and mercantile activity throughout eight or nine centuries, which is absolutely unique in the way it’s been preserved.”
Once the capital of the Hanseatic League, an organization started by German merchants in the 13th century to protect mutual trading interests, Lübeck sustained heavy damage during the Second World War. Per Unesco, bombs destroyed almost 20 percent of the city, though many of these areas have since been reconstructed.
“[N]o German city has ever before been attacked so severely from the air,” wrote Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels after the attack. “Conditions in parts of Lübeck are chaotic.” (Lübeck was the first German city targeted by a large-scale RAF raid during the war; in retaliation for the 1942 bombing, the German Luftwaffe launched the so-called Baedeker raids, devastating such English cities as Exeter, Bath and York.)
Conservators are working to preserve the charred cake, which may still contain traces of phosphorus and other chemicals used in mid-20th century bombs. The team needs to ensure that these combustible compounds are removed before beginning efforts to protect and preserve the pastry.
“This cake is like a window into 80 years ago,” Rieger tells Live Science.
When the artifact eventually goes on public display, he adds, people “will hopefully see not only the destruction of the war but also the joy that people had. Because this was a family celebration, they listened to music, they wanted to have a nice cup of tea, they wanted to have this cake. It’s a very intimate situation that was immediately destroyed by this war.”