A 3500-Year-Old ‘Lunch Box’ Discovered in Switzerland Once Contained Bronze Age Cereal

Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern
Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern

Around 3500 years ago, a traveler forging their way through a mountain pass in the Swiss Alps may have dropped their lunch box. As the International Business Times reports, archaeologists studying a Bronze Age wooden container discovered some 8500 feet above sea level found molecular traces of ancient "cereal": wheat and barley or rye grains. These contents could help experts learn more about how farming emerged in Europe during the Bronze Age, according to the researchers' new study published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

The circular wooden container was discovered in a melting ice patch in 2012. Its base was made from Swiss pine and its rim from willow sewn together with European larch twigs. Its lightweight frame would have made it ideal for toting across the Alps.

A 3500-year-old "lunchbox" was discovered in an ice patch in the Swiss Alps.
Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern

A 3500-year-old "lunchbox," discovered in an ice patch in the Swiss Alps.
Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern

A 3500-year-old "lunchbox," discovered in an ice patch in the Swiss Alps.
Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern

Artifacts made from organic materials like wood often don’t survive in the archaeological record, making the box an extremely rare find. Noting a mysterious residue on its central surface, researchers from Germany's Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of York used microscopic and molecular analyses to see what kind of food the container once held.

Like all organic material, plants degrade over time, but thanks to new advances in technology, archaeologists can sometimes identify the lipids and proteins left behind on empty vessels. This can help them learn what people were eating and drinking long ago.

Researchers were expecting to find a milk residue left by porridge or some other type of food, so they were surprised to discover lipid-based biomarkers called alkylresorcinols that came from wheat or rye grain.

"One of the greatest challenges of lipid analysis in archaeology has been finding biomarkers for plants," said the paper's lead author, University of York bioarchaeologist André Colonese, in a news release. "There are only a few, and they do not preserve very well in ancient artifacts. You can imagine the relevance of this study, as we have now a new tool for tracking early culinary use of cereal grains—it really is very exciting. The next step is to look for them in ceramic artifacts."

The domestication and transmission of cereals was important to the emergence of farming, but archaeologists rarely find direct evidence of grain's early use. This discovery could help them learn more about how farming developed in Eurasia, and how important cereals were for both farmers and the general economy.

[h/t Archaeology]

People Have Been Dining on Caviar Since the Stone Age


Millennia before caviar became a staple hors d'oeuvre at posh parties, it was eaten from clay pots by Stone Age humans. That's the takeaway of a new study published in the journal PLOS One. As Smithsonian reports, traces of cooked fish roe recovered from an archeological site in Germany show just how far back the history of the dish goes.

For the study, researchers from Germany conducted a protein analysis of charred food remains caked to the shards of an Stone Age clay cooking vessel. After isolating roughly 300 proteins and comparing them to that of boiled fresh fish roe and tissue, they were able to the identify the food scraps as carp roe, or eggs. The scientists write that the 4000 BCE-era hunter-gatherers likely cooked the fish roe in a pot of water or fish broth heated by embers, and covered the pot with leaves to contain the heat or add additional flavor.

The clay shards were recovered from Friesack 4 in Brandenburg, Germany, a Stone Age archaeological site that has revealed about 150,000 artifacts, including items crafted from antlers, wood, and bone, since it was discovered in the 1930s. In the same study, the researchers report that they also found remnants of bone-in pork on a vessel recovered from the same site.

Other archaeological digs have shown that some of the foods we think of as modern delicacies have been around for thousands of years, including cheese, salad dressing, and bone broth. The same goes for beverages: Recently a 13,000-year-old brewery was uncovered in the Middle East.

[h/t Smithsonian]

Dozens of Cat Mummies, Plus 100 Cat Statues, Discovered in 4500-Year-Old Egyptian Tomb

iStock.com/Murat İnan
iStock.com/Murat İnan

The mummification of cats was a common practice in ancient Egypt, but it’s always a pleasant surprise when the felines are found thousands of years later. As NPR reports, dozens of mummified cats and 100 wooden cat statues were recently discovered in a 4500-year-old tomb near Cairo.

These items were uncovered by Egyptian archaeologists while excavating a newly discovered tomb in Saqqara, whose necropolis served the ancient city of Memphis. Another nearby tomb remains sealed, and it’s possible that it may have evaded looters and remained untouched for millennia.

In addition to the wooden statues, one bronze cat statue was found. It was dedicated to Bastet, goddess of cats, who was said to be the daughter of Re, god of the Sun. While cats were revered by ancient Egyptians, they weren’t directly worshipped. Rather, gods like Bastet were often depicted with the physical characteristics of an animal that was considered divine.

Even rarer than the mummified cats were a couple collections of mummified scarab beetles that were found in the tomb—the first of their kind to be unearthed in this particular necropolis, Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities announced in a Facebook post. The scarabs were still in “very good condition” because they had been wrapped in linen and placed inside two limestone sarcophagi, whose lids had black scarabs painted on top.

"The (mummified) scarab is something really unique. It is something really a bit rare," Mostafa Waziri, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, told Reuters and other media. "A couple of days ago, when we discovered those coffins, they were sealed coffins with drawings of scarabs. I never heard about them before."

The beetles were an important religious symbol in ancient Egypt, representing renewal and rebirth. The Ministry of Antiquities said archaeologists also found wooden statues of a lion, a cow, and a falcon, as well as painted wooden sarcophagi of cobras (with mummies inside) and wooden sarcophagi of crocodiles.

[h/t NPR]