During a 1954 BBC documentary about Tollund Man, the mysterious body of a hanged man discovered in a peat bog in Denmark, the noted archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler ate a reconstruction of the 2,000-year-old’s last meal. After tasting the porridge of barley, linseed and mustard seeds, he dabbed at his moustache and declared the mystery was solved: Tollund Man had killed himself rather than eat another spoonful.
Food reconstruction has come a long way since then. Last week Seamus Blackley, a scientist more famous for creating the Xbox, baked a sourdough loaf using yeast cultured from scrapings off 4,500-year-old Egyptian pottery at his home in California. The results, said one of his collaborators, Dr Serena Love, an Egyptologist from the University of Queensland, were “tangy and delicious”. “I met Seamus for the first time today,” she said. “As soon as I walked in the door he gave me a plate of bread.” Blackley extracted samples from inside the ceramic pores of a clay pot from the Peabody Museum at Harvard University three weeks ago. Most are being examined by the third member of the team, Richard Bowman, a molecular biologist, but Blackley kept one to turn it into yeast to make bread. “Food puts you in touch with the humanity of the past,” Love said. “That’s a tactile thing, something that’s visceral – you can actually experience the ancients, with at least one of the actual ingredients.”
They are not quite the first people to attempt to take yeast from ancient sources. In May a group of scientists in Israel brewed beer using yeast from wine and beer jugs found in archaeological digs. Another scientist, Raul Cano from California Polytechnic State University, extracted yeast from a bee trapped in amber 45m years ago, and eventually set up the Fossil Fuel Brewing Company to sell the results. You can also add to the list Carlsberg’s 1883, Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch and something called Tutankhamun Ale, brewed by Scottish and Newcastle in the 1990s from yeast collected by academics Barry Kemp and Delwen Samuel.
Ancient and historical foods are having a bit of a moment. The growing interest can be seen in the number of cookbooks available including An Early Meal, a Viking Age Cookbook by Daniel Serra and Hanna Tunberg and Khazana by Saliha Mahmood Ahmed with recipes inspired by the Mughal empire, as well as in the increasing number of food re-enactments. Graham Taylor’s Potted History firm makes amphoras and Neolithic pottery for experimental archaeologists such as Sally Grainger who has investigated and made versions of garum, a Roman fish sauce, as well as Jill Hatch who cooks authentic Roman food for the Ermine Street Guard enthusiasts and similar groups. But those looking for original ingredients to recreate tastes of the past need to be cautious, says Professor Dorian Fuller, an archaeobotanist from University College London. “Yeast is everywhere. It’s hard to know if something wasn’t contaminated when it was dug out of the ground, or when it was put on a ship to Boston collecting yeasts along the way. These things haven’t been kept in sterile conditions.”
Because human diets have been founded on grains for millennia, beer, bread and porridge are the main focus of attempts to recreate truly ancient foods. “The latest study that came out in the ‘80s said grain made up about 70% of the daily diet of Romans, although I think that’s a little high,” said Farrell Monaco, an archaeologist specialising Roman culture who has worked in Pompeii and Herculaneum. “Although I think that’s a little high, bread and pulses were the two vehicles to get calories into the Roman daily diet.” Pompeii has commercial bakeries on every street corner, she said. “And religion as well – bread was so valuable that you would offer it to the gods.”
Monaco uses replicas of Roman and Greek kitchen tools to make dishes described by ancient writers such as Columella, Pliny and Cato: fig vinegar, moretum (salads), hypotrimma (a sweet paste) and defrutum (a grape syrup) as well as panis quadratus, a round loaf that has been excavated at many sites around Vesuvius. She believes making ancient food with original techniques is a vital archaeological tool. “To use your hand, your eyes, nose, tastebuds, to labour over something, to use a handmill to make a loaf of bread, so you understand how much labour and sweat went into making it – you start to understand how much value it had.”
While some food reconstruction focuses on matching ingredients as Blackley has done and some use historical techniques like Monaco, others aim to replicate taste, says Dr Chris Kissane, a food historian. “Our sense of taste has changed considerably as well, even in the last few hundred years,” he said. “People in the early modern period used a lot of sugar and things like that to preserve food, so they had a lot more tolerance for sweetness in savoury food.”
Examining the evolution of taste brings a barrel-full of other questions with it, he said. Heavily spiced medieval food gave way to potatoes, tomatoes, chilli and peppers from the Americas, while the 18th-century French cuisine revolution led to restaurants across the western world. “It’s impossible to think about food history without thinking about everything else.”
Blackley’s samples from inside the pottery are being analysed by Bowman, who is trying to map the yeast genome to compare it with modern strains. “What I’m reminded of is mummy wheat,” Fuller said. “In the 19th century people claimed to get wheat out of ancient Egyptian tombs associated with mummies and therefore to then cultivate it. You can possibly still buy some of these things. But none of them are actually really ancient. Seeds don’t have that kind of viability.”