Bronze Age miners needed their mush delivered

March 24, 2021
Bronze Age miners had food delivered. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Bronze Age miners had food delivered. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Researchers have found remains of a Late Bronze Age cereal mush and no evidence of the tools needed to process it, suggesting that 3,000 years ago, specialized workers were having ready-to-cook food delivered to their workplace.

In an excavation at Prigglitz-Gasteil, a large prehistoric copper mining site in the Austrian Alps, archaeologists found 1,097 cereal remains, 122 of which had an identifiable genus. Through microscopic analysis, the researchers determined that some of the food remains — charred, possibly as the result of cooking accidents — had once been edible mush. In the study, published March 24 in PLOS One, they found apparently distinct barley mush and foxtail millet mush. 

"I am super excited that looking at 'tiny, ugly shreds of porridge' is indeed worth the effort for the reconstruction of cuisine," said Andreas G. Heiss, the lead author of the study and head of the bioarchaology research group at the Austrian Archaeological Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. 

The results confirm previous interpretations of Bronze Age metallurgical sites, but in an unusual setting. "Most previously analyzed copper mining/metallurgy sites in the Alps are in more remote places, further away from areas suitable for farming," Heiss told The Academic Times. "At Prigglitz, we are in a rather ideal farming situation as far as climate and altitude, slope inclination or soil quality are concerned. This makes it very likely that neighboring farmsteads were the main sources of food for the miners."

The researchers excavated two terraces adjacent to the mine, where the miners and associated people may have lived and set up workshops. Building on one terrace began in the mid-11th century B.C. and ended around the start of the 8th century B.C., while building on the other terrace happened during the three decades before 900 B.C.

The plant macroremains — plant finds that are larger than .1 millimeter — were taken from bulk samples of 1,459 liters of soil. After excavation, during which these small plant pieces are typically invisible to the naked eye, the researchers retrieved them from the sediment samples through flotation and sieving. Identifiable non-wood charred plant macroremains were hand-sorted under stereomicroscope. The dating and chronology were established through radiocarbon dating of organic materials, including animal bones and charred plant remains. 

Many of the fragments were identified by comparing them to known references. Ten random cereal fragments were analyzed under a scanning electron microscope.

In some of the cereal remains, the researchers did not see any ungelatinized starch. They concluded that these ground grains must have been cooked after being hydrated with water or some other liquid, and that different-sized particles of grain were not distributed as they would have been in a totally liquid dish — ergo, it was mush.

The researchers didn't find any additional ingredients in the dish, such as salt, condiments or fats, but they believe that further chemical analysis on related finds could shed more light on how the miners or their neighbors prepared this dish. Prepared food remains are exceptionally difficult to analyze, since the act of cooking destroys certain elements of plants.

When it comes to processed foods, there has "been some intrinsic ignorance within the wide field of archaeology," Heiss said. Food products — even foods as complex as a loaf of bread or a beer — have been relegated to the realm of "biofacts" or "ecofacts," as opposed to artifacts, the category of objects intentionally manipulated by humans. Heiss and his coauthors argued vociferously against the way many archaeologists have diminished cuisine. 

They wrote that it seemed "strangely distorted" to "acknowledge a piece of chipped flint as the artifactual outcome of a skilled maker's action, but not a bread bun or a jug of beer (the beer, not the jug), which both result from highly complex production processes." 

They contend, instead, that it is time to treat a humble ancient mush with the attention and dignity that it deserves.

The study, "Dig out, Dig in! Plant-based diet at the Late Bronze Age copper production site of Prigglitz-Gasteil (Lower Austria) and the relevance of processed foodstuffs for the supply of Alpine Bronze Age," published March 24 in PLOS One, was authored by Andreas G. Heiss and Silvia Wiesinge, Austrian Academy of Sciences; Thorsten Jakobitsch, Austrian Academy of Sciences and University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences; and Peter Trebsche, University of Innsbruck.

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