Remains of a Feast

Food and Beverage as conservation themes have been long time interests at this site, whether it be recreating ancient ales or maintaining the artisan ethos of ancient food ways.

I have to admit that the blend of cuisine and archaeology are equally fascinating; I would have been one of the first of the “curious passersby” at the feast described here. The article is behind a paywall, but worth the read.

A taste of antiquity: what’s it like to eat 2,500-year-old food?

How Fuchsia Dunlop sampled food from the tomb of a long dead king

The four sheep turned on their spits, wafting out rich aromas over the bleached Turkish landscape. Nearby, I stirred a vast potful of lentil stew over an open fire, lashed by smoke and sunlight. A long table in the yard was already laden with dishes: handmade hummus and fava bean paste, whole honeycombs, stacks of tandoor-baked bread and piles of pomegranates. Beyond it loomed the great burial mound of a ruler of the Phrygian kingdom who had died here in the eighth century BC — thought to be a historical King Midas or his father. Aided by a team of Turkish cooks and food experts, I was doing my best to recreate his funeral feast.

This wasn’t an idle exercise. In the 1950s, archaeologists from the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania had excavated the tomb, near the old Phrygian capital at Gordion. Although this King Midas was not the mythical man with the golden touch, they still found a treasure trove of bronze cauldrons, drinking bowls and clay pots in his burial chamber, including the largest Iron Age drinking set ever discovered. The vessels contained the physical remnants of a banquet the mourners had shared, but it was about 40 years before advances in science permitted chemical analysis of the residues.
This was done in the late 1990s by experts from the Penn Museum, led by Patrick McGovern, scientific director of its Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health, and author of Ancient Brews: Rediscovered & Re-created.

Using modern techniques such as infrared spectroscopy, liquid and gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, McGovern and his team examined the vestiges of both food and drink found in the bronze vessels. The mourners, they concluded, had shared an unusual brew made from a mixture of honey, grapes and barley — a sort of cocktail of mead, wine and beer. And although the researchers couldn’t be sure, they suspected it had also contained saffron because of the intense yellow colour of the residue (and because some of the finest saffron of the ancient world was produced in what is now Turkey).

The chemical detective work on the brown clumps of food matter showed these were the leftovers of a great stew made from lamb or goat that had first been seared over fire to produce caramelisation, then simmered with some kind of pulse (probably lentils) along with ingredients such as honey, wine, olive oil, fennel or anise and other herbs and spices.

The remains of the feast at Gordion are among numerous ancient foods and drinks scattered throughout the collections of museums all over the world. Many have been retrieved from graves, store cupboards and shipwrecks; others were collected by 19th-century European explorers during their expeditions to the non-western world.

A recent exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, Last Supper in Pompeii, included carbonised bread and solidified olive oil dating from AD79, the year Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the city. Desiccated pastries dating back to the Tang dynasty (AD618-907), now in the British Museum, were found in the Astana tombs in western China, as was a bowlful of jiaozi dumplings: totally dried out but otherwise much like those you might eat in northern China today.

More appetisingly, the preserved soyabeans with ginger from the Mawangdui tombs in China’s Hunan province, interred about 2,200 years ago, appear no different from those sold in any modern Chinese supermarket.

At the first virtual Oxford Food Symposium last month, Dutch food historian Linda Roodenburg displayed a photograph of a 19th-century reindeer-milk cheese from the city’s Pitt Rivers Museum: it looked hard and mouldy but otherwise intact. Roodenburg, the founder of a virtual food museum, is compiling a cookbook based on the assortment of comestible treasures in the Pitt Rivers collection, which also include wild potato bread from Japan and dried bird’s nest from Sumatra.

Food objects were collected and shipped to European museums in the 19th century “because food was considered an important part of a culture, especially when it was related to specific rituals”, Roodenburg says. But as modern anthropology took shape, the focus shifted from these physical relics and towards analysing and interpreting the social structures of “primitive” societies. “With this disengagement from natural science, organic and edible objects became irrelevant for anthropological research,” she continues…

…My own initiation into the wonders of ancient food and drink, at the Gordion tomb, started 20 years ago when a television company hired McGovern as a scientific consultant for a documentary, King Midas’ Feast. They invited me, a recently published food writer with some experience of Turkey, to recreate the feast, guided by the evidence and the advice of local experts, including food and drink journalist Aylin Öney Tan.

McGovern had already collaborated with a winemaker to recreate the funeral beverage: a gorgeous golden elixir fermented from barley, grapes and honey. The golden colour came from saffron, which they used guided more by a hunch than any solid proof of its presence in the original brew (a craft brewery in the US still produces a beer inspired by this).

As I pondered the possibilities for a historically accurate menu, I began to wonder what the residues from the tomb would taste like and how it would feel to eat something that had been cooked more than 2,500 years ago. I was astounded that McGovern and his colleagues had never tasted the residues themselves: this would have been my first impulse — which is probably why I’m not an archaeologist. Would it be possible to try some? I asked McGovern, cheekily. I can’t remember his reply. In any case, it seemed unlikely he would agree.

After intense discussions, Tan and I came up with a menu we reckoned could have been made with the produce and techniques of Iron Age Phrygia — long before the appearance in Turkey of modern ingredients such as tomatoes, lemons, chillies and even sugar.

On the eve of the feast, we marinated the sheep in salt, onion, wild thyme, honey, pekmez (grape syrup) and wine, ready for the spits and the sheep-dung fires. We made a rudimentary hummus, seasoned with sumac and vinegar rather than lemon juice, and a fava bean paste enlivened by dill. The following morning, I cooked the lentil stew according to McGovern’s advice, flavouring it with onion, sheep-tail fat, garlic, fennel seeds and pekmez. McGovern and the winemaker poured their recreated funeral beverage into magnificent copper cauldrons: replicas of the bronze vessels found in the tomb that had been made for us by the copper merchants of Ankara.

That afternoon, a hundred or so invited guests, including journalists and diplomats, arrived for the feast, along with 200 curious passers-by…

Read the entire article here.

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