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From Loki to Lipids: Using modern biology to discover Viking culinary culture

Steve Ashby – Melting Pot

For Biology Week, we’ve teamed-up with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to find out how Viking Archaeology project Melting Pot use modern biology to help with research into ancient history.

It’s not every project that combines ancient artefacts with cutting edge biological techniques. But the route Dr Steve Ashby – primary investigator on Viking Bio-archaeology project Melting Pot – took to becoming an archaeologist was hardly typical either.

“I always wanted to be an archaeologist, but I took a pretty indirect route to get here,” he explains. Starting with a degree in geology, Steve confesses it was a bit of a gamble when he then headed back to university to do a masters degree in Zooarchaeology – the study of past animal-human relations, in case you were wondering.

 “While doing that degree I found a particular interest in artefacts made of bone - most particularly Viking-Age hair combs. I ended up doing a PhD on this subject - funded by the AHRB (predecessor to the AHRC).”

It was then that Dr Ashby realised the potential of applying new scientific methods to “familiar and often overlooked” materials. Asking about the idea behind Melting Pot – his latest project – leads to misleadingly simple answer:

“My idea was that we might be able to see cultural and social patterning in food if we looked not so much at what was eaten, but at how it was prepared. By looking at the pots in which food was stored, cooked, and served, we can access these questions.”

The implementation, however, is a little more complex. Taking sherds of ancient pottery, Ashby and his team compare patterns of wear and soot, identifying the plant based contents of burnt-on food crust. From there, fat and wax residue is extracted from deep within the ceramics themselves to see whether they contained material like meat, fish or plants.


A sherd of Viking pottery

But finding out what Vikings ate is only part of the equation, by discovering what vessels were used to prepare its possible to learn a great deal how food varied from place to place.

“By analysing large numbers of pots, we can compare patterning between different forms of pot, and see how it varies according to time, space, and social context,” Ashby says. “Did changes in vessels being used relate to changing cooking techniques? How did cuisine vary between town and country? Was food culture in the 'Scandinavian' north of England different to that of the 'Saxon' south? And how did both compare to contemporary Scandinavia itself?”

Beyond these questions, an understanding of how ancient cultures can lead to even more discovery. “Food,” Ashby says, “is a key medium for the production of identity, and a way of evoking a sense of home.”

“Food culture incorporates elements of both public display and private 'ritual'. It offers us opportunities to see how different groups of people - different ethnicities, different status groups, urban and rural communities - saw themselves, and how they wanted to be seen in public. So it's potentially very powerful.”

Vials of material extracted from pottery

But Viking people didn’t have quite the same relationship with food and utensils that many other ancient civilisations did. In western Scandinavia (modern Norway), ceramics were not well known, and vessels were carved from soapstone instead. In southern Scandinavia (modern Denmark), where pottery was being manufactured, it was fundamentally different to that being used elsewhere.

“These differences in material culture had some impact on food culture itself.” Ashby says “One of the interesting phenomena that we see in Viking-Age England is the production of new, apparently continental, forms of pottery in localities closely associated with the movements of the, possibly multi-ethnic, Viking Great Army.”

For the time being the Melting Pot team are still going through their data, so it’s a little bit early to draw any clear conclusions. But there are some early patterns that may point to some interesting discoveries.

The Melting Pot Lab

“There are suggestions that some of the new, fashionable ceramics appearing in the late 9th century were developed for particular purposes; the processing of dairy products, for instance.

“We’re already starting to fill out some of the gaps in our knowledge about Viking-Age cooking and eating habits, by tying together two sets of data that have frequently been considered in isolation: faunal and botanical remains, and ceramic collections.”

Perhaps most exciting of all, however, is the potential that implementing new biological methods holds for archaeologists in the materials they find: “Very often the answers to big, important, long-debated questions, “ Ashby says  “seem to lie in the material that was right under our noses, if we could only find the right techniques to extract it. This is what really interests me: the nexus of archaeological science, social theory, and material culture.”

In the end, it comes down to finding the best ways pull out stories from the materials that have survived. As Dr Ashby puts it: “The artefacts never speak to you, but you can read them.”

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