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Archaeologists Are Recreating Recipes from 17th-Century Ships

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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.”

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Found: A Sunken German World War I-Era Submarine
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SMU Central University Libraries, Flickr/Public Domain

During World War I, one of Germany's most formidable weapons was the U-boat, an advanced military submarine with torpedoes that sank countless Allied merchant and cargo ships. But while deadly, these submersibles weren't invincible, as evidenced by the recent discovery of a sunken German U-boat in the North Sea.

As ABC News reports, researchers located the UB II-type dive boat—a smaller submarine that typically plagued coastal waters—off the coast of Belgium, around 82 to 98 feet below the North Sea. The 88-foot vessel appears to have struck a mine with its upper deck, judging by damage suffered to its front.

The submarine is remarkably intact. Two of its torpedo tubes were destroyed, but one of them is still in good condition. The ship itself remained sealed, and may serve as a watery grave for up to 23 crew members.

The U-boat's final resting place hasn't been announced, as to prevent looting or damage, according to the BBC. Meanwhile, Belgian officials have contacted the German ambassador to see how they should proceed with any potential remains.

This isn't the first time a World War I-era U-boat has been found in Belgian waters. Experts have catalogued 11 such discoveries so far, but this one is reported to be the best preserved. The Chicago Tribune reports that since 18 U-boats were stationed in Bruges between 1915 and 1918, and 13 of them were destroyed, there might be even more of these kinds of finds to come.

[h/t ABC News]

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Cotswold Archaeology
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Amateur Archaeologists in England Unearth Rare Roman Mosaic
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Cotswold Archaeology

For the past three years, amateur archaeologists and historians in southern England have been working side-by-side with volunteers to excavate several seemingly related local Roman sites. Now, just two weeks before the dig's scheduled conclusion, they've made a fantastic discovery: a rare 4th-century CE mosaic that is being hailed as "the most important of its type in Britain in more than half a century," according to The New York Times.

Dating to roughly 380 CE, the mosaic was unearthed near the village of Boxford in Berkshire. The project—which included a rotating assembly of 55 members—involved local interest groups like the Boxford History Project and the Berkshire Archaeological Research Group, and was overseen by Cotswold Archaeology, a company that helps builders preserve archaeological finds. Funding was provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund, which gives grants to heritage projects across the UK.

In the project's first two years, the group members discovered a large Roman villa, a bathhouse, and a farmstead. In 2017, they began excavating the main villa, a site that yielded pottery, jewelry, coins, and other ancient objects. None of these artifacts, however, were as spectacular as the mosaic, which volunteers unearthed in a moment of serendipity shortly before funding for the dig ended.

Revealed sections of the artwork depict scenes featuring Bellerophon, a mythological Greek hero, along with other fabled figures. Bellerophon is famous in legends for capturing the winged horse Pegasus and for defeating the Chimera, a fire-breathing creature with a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail.

Citizen archaeologists in Boxford, England unearth a Roman mosaic thought to date from 380 CE.
Cotswold Archaeology

"The range and style of imagery is very rare in the UK, where simple geometric patterns are the norm," Duncan Coe, a principal heritage consultant with Cotswold Archaeology, tells Mental Floss. "The combination of artwork and inscriptions is unique in this country. The range of imagery is also unique, with at least two scenes from the story of Bellerophon, a character from Greek mythology, augmented by Hercules and the Centaur, Cupid and telamones [male statues used as a column]—and we only have half of the mosaic revealed so far."

Excavators uncovered nearly 20 feet of the mosaic, but ultimately reburied it to deter looters and prevent damage. Members of Boxford's local archaeological community hope to secure funding and return to the site—now dubbed the Boxford villa—to dig up the entire scene.

A Roman mosaic thought to date from 380 CE, unearthed by citizen archaeologists in Boxford England.
Cotswold Archaeology

In addition to teaching experts about the villa's owners—who were evidently sophisticated and wealthy—and Boxford's ancient heritage, the newly discovered mosaic isn't just any ordinary artwork, according to Coe: "This isn't just an isolated mosaic, but a small, but very important, part of a bigger jigsaw that advances our understanding of what was happening in southern England just before the Roman government abandoned Britain," he says.

[h/t The New York Times]

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