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Archaeologist ´digs´can be made into dishes

Reconstructing old recipes is not just good research, says archaeologist. It is good cooking

She calls it applied archaeology.

The reconstruction of ancient recipes so that we can cook and serve them on our own, modern, tables.

Sabine Karg, an external lecturer at the University of Copenhagen, has co-authored the first archaeological cookbook of the world. With recipes from the Stone Ages to the Middle Ages, it is now published in three languages: Danish, German and English.

»We hope that through the cooking, you will also become more interested in the cultural history of the ingredients,« she says.

Based on archaeologists’ digs

It all started with an idea from Irmgard Bauer, one of Sabine Karg’s colleagues at the Museum für Urgeschichte (n) of the Canton Zug in Switzerland to combine ancient cooking methods with the real archaeological finds such as animal bones, shells, fish and plant remains. It was just a brochure that Bauer, Karg and a third author Steinhauser-Zimmermann published in German language in 1995.

When Sabine Karg moved to Copenhagen to take up a position at the National Museum, she showed it to the directors, and the idea of an extended version came about.

The thing is, we only have documented recipes from the Roman upper class, and from the Middle Ages. Recipes before, and between, these periods therefore have to be reconstructed. And this is where the archaeology comes in.

As Sabine Karg puts it: »You need to go out and dig.«

Has tried them all

»You find the bones of animals (on archaeological sites) to find out which animals they bred, and which they hunted. You look for plant finds.«

»But this is tricky,« she says, and holds up a little container containing what looks like little bits of charcoal. They are 4,000 year old water chestnuts that were roasted at a fireplace by Bronze Age settlers in Southern Germany, she explains.

The book is nothing but ambitious: 15,000 years of culinary history it says in the introduction. Sabine and her original co-authors have been hard at work.

»We tried out all the recipes with the original cooking method, some up here in my garden and in the Land of Legends at Lejre in Denmark, some in openair museums in Switzerland«.

Combines proven elements

So how do you, as an archaeologist, in practice reconstruct a recipe?

»Take this vessel,« Sabine says, as she shows a picture of a large cooking pot. »On this archaeological find, you will often would have a food crust, and we can analyse this. We can go back to the original plant species, sometimes even to the fish species by help of preserved scales,« she explains.

As for the actual recipe, a bit of creativity comes in. Reconstructions come from the ingredients that are verified in the finds, and from the crusts.

»What makes the book unique is that it combines elements that we have recorded in many archaeological sites,« Sabine Karg explains.


And the results are astonishing, she adds. While the choice and variation of ingredients was not as big as in modern times, with ancient peoples dependent more on seasons, close geography and hunting/collecting success, there was nothing wrong with the quality of their diet.

»The food was more healthy, as there was only honey to sweeten things: There were no additives as in todays food, as they were simply not available. It was more basic.«

Sabine Karg and her co-authors’ original publication 20 years ago has helped ignite a movement.

So-called ‘paleo’-restaurants, (read ‘paleolithic’) serve ‘original’ archaeological dishes in Berlin.

So much for boring pots

Eating has suddenly become a gateway to our distant forefathers. The recipes are a great way for the historically-interested layman to start asking themselves bigger questions, says Sabine.

It is not just cooking, it is learning archaeology and history. Where and when was beer invented? Where and how where animals domesticated, as for example chicken?

Throughout her career Sabine Karg has been interested in the fields of botany and archaeology. More specifically in the evolution and domestication of plants, and subsistence strategies in ancient times.

At the University in Tübingen, Germany, as endless slides with pottery were presented to her and her fellow students, her imagination wandered off into what was actually inside them, she recounts.

»As archaeologists, we know a lot about the evolution of ceramics, but not so much about what was kept in the vessels. Now this is where archaeology becomes more lively and interesting.«

The University Post tested one of the recipes at a recent get-together for reporters. Read our review of it here.

Buy Sabine’s book a Culinary Journey Through Time.

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