Archaeologists Are Recreating Recipes from 17th-Century Ships

Arthur Tanner/Getty Images
Arthur Tanner/Getty Images

If ships’ logs and sailors' diaries are to be believed, the gastronomic situation during early voyages across the Atlantic was dire.

“Lady Sea will not tolerate or conserve meat or fish that is not dressed in her salt,” wrote Spanish explorer Eugenio de Salazar in his complaint-filled 1573 letter that’s now dubbed “The Landlubber’s Lament.” He griped that water is rationed “by the ounce, as in a pharmacy,” and he described wooden plates “filled with stringy beef joints, dressed with some partly cooked tendons.” Other food, Salazar said, is so “rotten and stinking” that you’d be better off losing your sense of taste and smell just to get it all down.

Most chefs would be happy to leave this grim slice of food history behind. But a group of archaeologists in Texas has just begun an unusual experiment to faithfully recreate the menu onboard a typical transatlantic sailing ship. By doing so, they hope to learn more about sailor nutrition.

“We use modern standards to extrapolate health from the past,” project leader Grace Tsai, a doctoral student in Texas A&M University’s nautical archaeology program, tells Mental Floss. “But you won’t know [the food’s] nutritional value until you actually make it with a historical recipe and get that tested in a lab.”

Over the last few months, Tsai and her colleagues have been perfecting 17th-century recipes for provisions like ship’s biscuit (a long-lasting dry cracker) and salted meat. On August 19, they loaded their canvas sacks and heavy barrels into the hold of a 19th-century tall ship named Elissa that’s moored in Galveston. They’ll perform nutritional and microbial analysis on the food every 10 days over the next three months.

A barrel used to store the research team's salted beef
Erika Davila

Without canning or refrigeration, salting was indeed the most popular way to preserve food for long journeys. And when sailors would reach new lands, they preserved whatever animals they could hunt. Richard Wilk, an anthropologist at Indiana University who is not affiliated with the project, said there are some accounts of hungry sailors in the Southern Hemisphere stuffing casks with salted penguins. “Basically, if it was meat and they could salt it and dry it, then they could carry it around with them,” Wilk tells Mental Floss.

Nearly every account from European vessels between the 16th and 18th centuries lists salted beef, which is similar to corned beef, among the provisions, Tsai said. So her team butchered a steer and a hog to make salted beef and salted pork. They based their cuts of meat on the bones that were found at the shipwreck of the Warwick, an English galleon carrying supplies to Jamestown, Virginia, that sank in 1619 off the coast of Bermuda during a hurricane. They followed a recipe from a 1682 English text on salting food, ordered salt from France, and consulted local environmental officials in Texas to find the purest river water to make their brine.

Though it was probably warm and flat, beer could make or break a voyage, too. Useful as a social lubricant, beer was also often cleaner than drinking water, and it provided some calories, nutrients, and probiotics, Tsai noted. One bit of American lore that suds enthusiasts love to cite is that beer might have played a role in the lost Mayflower pilgrims’ decision to settle down at Plymouth, Massachusetts. “We could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our Beere,” Governor William Bradford explained in his diary.

Tsai plans to add casks of 17th-century-style English beer to the Elissa in November. To make their own brew even closer to the original, the Texas team is trying to secure a yeast culture from 220-year-old bottles of beer found at a British shipwreck in Australia. (Tsai said a sponsor of the project, Texas's Karbach Brewing Company, will eventually make a commercial version of their historical beer.)

Changes in temperature and humidity, and the rocking of the waves, could have affected the food on early transatlantic voyages, too. That’s why the researchers are storing their supplies in the Elissa instead of a lab. They expect to find not just colonies of microbes, but insects, too. “The ship’s biscuit would almost always grow weevils,” Tsai said. And English sailors, sticklers for tradition, didn’t use an airtight container for the crackers, but a canvas bag. Exposed to sea air and humidity, the biscuits often became moldy and mushy over time.

Salted beef made with an 18th-century recipe
The team made this salted beef using a 17th-century recipe.
Grace Tsai

In some ways, the project in Texas isn’t a totally new idea. In recent years, brewers have attempted to resurrect Egyptian ales and Iron Age meads. Experimental archaeologists have tried to recreate Stone Age barbecues and butchering techniques. Food historian Ken Albala of the University of the Pacific pointed out that sites like Hampton Court Palace in London, Colonial Williamsburg, and Plimoth Plantation serve historical meals regularly, though those institutions tend to be less adventurous about preserving and curing. “Modern people are indeed very frightened about food poisoning, so things like this that can go wrong are usually beyond their comfort zone,” Albala, who is not involved in the Texas project, tells Mental Floss.

Tsai saw those limitations firsthand while doing research at Colonial Williamsburg. Dressed like a colonial boy (the adult clothes were too big for her), she went behind the scenes at the living history museum for two weeks to learn more about handling the watertight oak barrels she’ll be using for the project. She noticed that the cooks at Colonial Williamsburg were using a brine recipe for salted beef that called for 35 pounds of salt to 8 gallons of water, but her 17th-century recipes say the brine is ready when it floats an egg. “That’s actually a lot less salt,” Tsai said. While historical reenactors may alter recipes for public safety reasons, the Texas team is aiming for authenticity.

When the team opens the barrels, they’ll look for caloric content, water content, sodium, vitamins, and minerals. Tsai is particularly interested in what kinds of bacteria she’ll find growing on the food—not just the disease-causing bugs, but probiotics, too.

“We barely ever eat anything that has probiotics anymore, and even when we do it’s a strict genre,” Tsai said. She suspects that sailors ingested a more diverse group of microbes than we do today, and investigating these organisms could shed light on changes in the human gut microbiome as modern diets have become bound to better hygiene standards.

A barrel full of salted beef is loaded into a tall ship
A barrel of salted beef is hoisted into the Elissa.
Grace Tsai

“If they do it correctly, the food should still be palatable, but whether it’s going to stand up to modern scientific standards of 'ok to eat,' I can’t really guess,” Albala said. “Of course, on many ships in the past, the food did indeed go bad. Sometimes they ate it anyway because they had no choice. It would have been a luxury to toss it.”

Because of safety concerns (and institutional review board restrictions), Tsai and her colleagues won’t get to eat the meat they’re storing on board the Elissa. But she has an idea of how the salted beef might taste after preparing some she got from Colonial Williamsburg. “You know that metallic taste you get when you have a bloody nose? It tasted like that.”

A (Still-Sharp) Medieval Sword Was Pulled from a Sewer in Denmark

Pipe layer Jannick Vestergaard and engineer Henning Nøhr hold up the sword they found.
Pipe layer Jannick Vestergaard and engineer Henning Nøhr hold up the sword they found.
Nordjyllands Historiske Museum (Historical Museum of Northern Jutland)

If the legend of King Arthur and Excalibur is anything to go by, anyone who successfully extracts a sword in a stone will be treated like royalty. The fable doesn’t say anything about the reward one gets for removing a medieval weapon from feces, though.

As Smithsonian reports, a pipe layer and an engineer recently found a sword from the medieval era while doing construction work on a sewer in Aalborg, Denmark’s fourth-largest city. The relic was plucked from a layer of waste that had accumulated atop an old slab of pavement that once ran through the city.

Most remarkably, the sword was still intact—and the blade still sharp. It’s about 3.5 feet long and of extremely high quality, according to archaeologists. The sword may have been used between 1100 and 1400, but the likeliest explanation is that it got separated from its owner sometime in the 14th century. “Findings from here have always pointed to the 1300s, so the sword must have ended up in the earth in this century,” archaeologist Kenneth Nielsen said in a translated statement.

The sword next to a tape measure
Nordjyllands Historiske Museum (Historical Museum of Northern Jutland)

It’s rare for such an important historical artifact to turn up in such an unlikely—and unhygienic—place. Swords were valuable and highly prized possessions, and they were treated as such. They were typically buried with their owners, but no graves are situated above the sewer where the weapon was found.

The country’s history offers some clues about what may have transpired, though. In the 1300s, power struggles and internecine war were common throughout Denmark. “The best explanation we can come up with is that the owner of the sword was defeated in a battle,” Nielsen told The Local Denmark. “In the tumult, it was then trod down into the layer of mud that formed the street back then.”

Similarly, a 14th-century sword was found in a Polish peat bog in 2017, and archaeologists suspect the owner either sunk into the marsh and met a grisly end, or merely dropped his weapon and was unable to retrieve it.

While these questions will likely remain unanswered, members of the public will have the chance to admire the Danish "sewer sword" in all its glory at the Aalborg Historiske Museum (Aalborg Historical Museum), which is located near the site where the sword was found. Fortunately for future visitors, it will be cleaned and preserved first.

[h/t Smithsonian]

George Pollard Jr., Unlucky Captain of the Ship That Inspired Moby-Dick

Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab during the shooting of the 1956 film Moby Dick
Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab during the shooting of the 1956 film Moby Dick
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Captain George Pollard Jr. had no choice but to eat his cousin. Crammed aboard a small whaleboat with some of his crew, the captain had been drifting aimlessly in the South Pacific for more than two months. The sun was relentless, their thirst was unquenchable, and the hull was leaking. Saltwater had leached into the men’s stash of bread, and one by one, Pollard’s men died of starvation—and were promptly devoured by the hungry survivors.

It was a nightmare scenario. Weeks earlier, in November 1820, Pollard's crew had been pursuing (and harpooning) a pod of sperm whales when an angry 85-foot-long whale barreled head-on into the captain's ship, The Essex of Nantucket, sending it to the ocean's bottom. The 20 survivors scrambled into three small whaleboats, which eventually became separated during a storm. After two and a half months at sea, the days began to blur and the stockpile of food dwindled, and the four men remaining on Pollard’s boat realized they were all going to starve if food didn’t soon become available. So they agreed to draw lots: Whoever pulled the short stick would volunteer to be shot and eaten.

It was a terribly irony. When the Essex sank, the men had been relatively close to the Marquesas Islands, but Pollard's men were afraid of landing there—the islands were rumored to be full of cannibals. Pollard agreed to follow a longer route, hoping to drift south and then east in hopes of reaching Chile. That decision, however, had made cannibals of the men on board.

As for the drawing of lots, Pollard’s 18-year-old cousin, Owen Coffin, was the unlucky loser. When Pollard insisted that he take the young man's place, Coffin refused—and was summarily shot in the head. “He was soon dispatched,” Pollard grimly recalled, “and nothing of him left.” About two weeks later, Pollard's boat was discovered. By that point, the two surviving men—Pollard and sailor Charles Ramsdell—had resorted to drinking their own urine and were found gnawing on the bones of their deceased mates.

The ordeal would haunt Captain Pollard. Before the voyage, he had promised Coffin’s mother that the boy would return home safely, and his failure to keep Coffin alive plagued Pollard's conscience. After surviving a second shipwreck, the captain took a job on sturdy land as Nantucket's night watchman, where he looked over the streets and wharves.

Three decades later, when Pollard was 60, Herman Melville—fresh from finishing Moby-Dick—paid the aging skipper a visit. Pollard didn’t know about the book, and the two didn’t exchange many words. But Melville harbored a secret: The sinking of the Essex had inspired his novel. (We should caution that Melville did not base the monomaniacal character of Ahab on Pollard himself. "While Melville was inspired by Pollard's adventures," the BBC says, "the unlucky seafarer's character is not thought to have been the basis for the novel's obsessive Capt Ahab.")

Melville marveled at the tormented man, saying of his encounter: “To the islanders he was a nobody—to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered.” In fact, Melville mentioned Pollard in his epic Clarel, the longest poem in American literature.

Never he smiled;
Call him, and he would come; not sour
In spirit, but meek and reconciled:
Patient he was, he none withstood;
Oft on some secret thing would brood.

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