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.”

The Mysterious Bronze Objects That Have Baffled Archaeologists for Centuries

The Roman dodecahedron Brian Campbell found in East London
The Roman dodecahedron Brian Campbell found in East London
Brian Campbell

One August day in 1987, Brian Campbell was refilling the hole left by a tree stump in his yard in Romford, East London, when his shovel struck something metal. He leaned down and pulled the object from the soil, wondering at its strange shape. The object was small—smaller than a tennis ball—and caked with heavy clay. “My first impressions," Campbell tells Mental Floss, "were it was beautifully and skillfully made … probably by a blacksmith as a measuring tool of sorts.”

Campbell placed the artifact on his kitchen windowsill, where it sat for the next 10 or so years. Then, he visited the Roman fort and archaeological park in Saalburg, Germany—and there, in a glass display case, was an almost identical object. He realized that his garden surprise was a Roman dodecahedron: a 12-sided metal mystery that has baffled archaeologists for centuries. Although dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of explanations have been offered to account for the dodecahedrons, no one is certain just what they were used for.

AN ANCIENT PUZZLE

A dodecahedron at the Saalburg Roman Fort Archaeological Park
A dodecahedron at the Saalburg Roman Fort Archaeological Park
Rüdiger Schwartz/Saalburg Roman Fort Archaeological Park

The first Roman dodecahedron to intrigue archaeologists was found almost 300 years ago, buried in a field in the English countryside along with some ancient coins. "A piece of mixed metal, or ancient brass, consisting of 12 equal sides," read the description of the egg-sized object when it was presented to the Society of Antiquaries in London in 1739. The 12 faces had "an equal number of perforations within them, all of unequal diameters, but opposite to one another … every faceing had a knobb or little ball fixed to it." The antiquarians were flummoxed by the finely crafted metal shell, and what its purpose may have been.

The 1739 dodecahedron was far from the last discovery of its kind. More than 100 similar objects have since been found at dozens of sites across northern Europe dating to around the 1st to 5th centuries CE. Ranging in size from about a golf ball to a bit larger than a baseball, each one has 12 equally sized faces, and each face has a hole of varying diameter. The objects themselves are all hollow.

By the mid-19th century, as more were found, the objects became known to archaeologists as dodecahedrons, from the Greek for “12 faces.” They're on display today in dozens of museums and archaeological collections throughout Europe, although given how little is known about them, their explanatory labels tend to be brief.

What's more, they have no paper trail. Historians have found no written documentation of the dodecahedrons in any historical sources. That void has encouraged dozens of competing, and sometimes colorful, theories about their purpose, from military banner ornaments to candleholders to props used in magic spells. The obvious craftsmanship that went into them—at a time when metal objects were expensive and difficult to make—has prompted many researchers to argue they were valuable, an idea that's supported by the fact that several have been found stashed away with Roman-era coins. But that still doesn't explain why they were made.

ARMED AND DANGEROUS?

A Roman cavalry charge, a relief from the Arch of Constantine in Rome, circa 315 CE
A Roman cavalry charge, from the Arch of Constantine in Rome, circa 315 CE
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the 19th century, some antiquarians favored the theory that the dodecahedrons were a type of weapon—perhaps the head of a mace (a type of club with a heavy head), or a metal bullet for a hand-held sling. But as other scholars later pointed out, even the largest of the dodecahedrons are too light to inflict much damage. Moreover, Roman soldiers usually fired solid lead balls from their slings—nothing that looked like the intricate, and hollow, dodecahedrons.

Yet weapons aren't the only items useful in a war. Amelia Sparavigna, a physicist at Italy’s Politecnico di Torino, thinks the dodecahedrons were used by the Roman military as a type of rangefinder. In research published on the online repository arXiv in 2012, Sparavigna argued that they could have been used to calculate the distance to an object of known size (such as a military banner or an artillery weapon) by looking through pairs of the dodecahedrons' differently sized holes, until the object and the edges of the two circles in the dodecahedron aligned. Theoretically, only one set of holes for a given distance would line up, according to Sparavigna.

The theory is strengthened by the fact that several of the dodecahedrons have been found at Roman military sites. Sparavigna tells Mental Floss that “the small little studs [on the outside allow for] a good grip of the object. So an expert soldier could use it in any condition,” while the many pairs of holes allowed them to quickly select between a variety of ranges. “The Roman army needed a rangefinder, and the dodecahedron can be used as a rangefinder,” she explains.

But many modern scholars disagree. Historian Tibor Grüll of the University of Pécs in Hungary, who reviewed the academic literature about the dodecahedrons in 2016, points out that no two Roman dodecahedrons are the same size, and none have any numerals or letters engraved on them—markings you might expect on a mathematical instrument. “In my opinion, the practical function of this object can be excluded because ... none of the items have any inscriptions or signs on [them],” Grüll tells Mental Floss.

He points to the distribution of the objects as an important clue. They have been found across a northwestern swath of the former Roman Empire from Hungary to northern England, but not in other Roman territories such as Italy, Spain, North Africa, or the Middle East. That lack works against the idea that the objects were military devices. "If it was a tool for ranging artillery," Grull says, "why does it not appear all over the empire in a military context?"

GUESSING GAMES

Perhaps the dodecahedrons were used for play, not war. Some scholars have suggested they may have been part of a child’s toy, like the French cup-and-ball game known as bilboquet, which dates from the Middle Ages. Their shape also invites comparisons to the dice used for gambling, a common pastime in the Roman era. But most Roman dice were six-sided, smaller, and carved from solid wood, stone, or ivory. Plus, the differently sized holes on each face of the dodecahedrons makes them useless as dice: One side is always heavier than the other, so they always fall the same way.

Many scholars have suggested that the items had a special cultural significance, and perhaps even a religious function, for the peoples in the formerly Gallic regions of northern Europe. The 1939 discovery of a well-preserved bronze dodecahedron in Krefeld, near Germany’s border with the Netherlands, lends credence to this idea. The object was found in the 4th-century CE grave of a wealthy woman, along with the remains of a bone staff. According to an essay from the Gallo-Roman Museum at Tongeren in Belgium, the dodecahedron was likely mounted on the staff like a kind of scepter head, and "probably ascribed with magical powers, bestowing religious power and prestige on its owner."

Or perhaps they had a different kind of cultural significance. Divination or fortune-telling was popular throughout the Roman empire, and the 12 sides of the dodecahedrons could suggest a link to the astrological zodiac. Others have suggested a link to Plato, who said that the dodecahedron was the shape “used for embroidering the constellations on the whole heaven.” (It's not quite clear exactly what Plato was talking about.)

Rüdiger Schwarz, an archaeologist at the Saalburg Roman Archaeological Park near Frankfurt in Germany—where Campbell first identified the curious object he'd found—explains that any discussion of the cultural significance of the objects is purely speculative. “We have no sources from antiquity which give an explanation of the function or the meaning of these objects,” Schwarz says. “Any of these theories may be true, but can neither be proved right or wrong.”

Schwarz points to another theory: The dodecahedrons may have been a type of “masterpiece” to show off a craftsman's metalworking abilities. This might be why they rarely show any signs of wear. “In this respect, the technical function of the dodecahedron is not the crucial point. It is the quality and accuracy of the work piece that is astonishing,” he tells Mental Floss. “One could imagine that a Roman bronze caster had to show his ability by manufacturing a dodecahedron in order to achieve a certain status.”

SOLDIERS IN THE BACKYARD

Of course, the internet loves an ancient mystery, and ideas about the purpose of the Roman dodecahedrons have flourished there. The work of Dutch researcher G.M.C. Wagemans, detailed at romandodecahedron.com, proposes that the objects were astronomical instruments used to calculate agriculturally important dates in the spring and fall by measuring the angle of sunlight through the different pairs of holes. Other internet researchers, perhaps less seriously, have used 3D-printed models of the Roman dodecahedrons for knitting experiments, and suggested that the true purpose of the objects was to create differently sized fingers for Roman woolen gloves.

Campbell has taken his artifact to several museums in London, but beyond confirming what it is, they could provide no further clues about its particular origin or purpose. "Many [is] the time I have handled it wondering as to its exact use," he says.

While Campbell has no clear idea what the Romans were doing with the dodecahedron—which he now keeps in a display cabinet in his house—he does propose how it might have come to be in his garden: by being left behind by soldiers traveling between London and the early Roman provincial capital of Camulodunum, now Colchester in Essex. Romford was at that time a river crossing and the probable site of a fortified posting station used by Roman troops for changing horses and resting in safety.

“Two thousand years ago, I believe this area was forested and the River Rom's flood plain was much wider than today,” Campbell says. “I often form a picture in my head of 100 or so Roman soldiers in full uniform bedding down in the area, now the bottom of my garden.”

Roman dodecahedrons are still being found today. Recent examples have been unearthed by metal-detectorists in the north of England, and by archaeologists excavating a late-Roman rubbish pit in the north of France [PDF]. It's likely more will be found in the future.

But unless someone also finds an instruction manual—and after more than 1500 years, that seems doubtful—the Roman dodecahedrons will continue to baffle, and fascinate, for many years to come.

A 'Shipwreck' Hotel Has Opened on Namibia's Skeleton Coast

iStock
iStock

At the newly opened Shipwreck Lodge on Namibia's Skeleton Coast, guests can stay in cabins designed to echo the rusted carcasses of ships that were smashed on the country's inhospitable shores.

Those wrecks aren't the only reason this stretch of land is called the Skeleton Coast; the sand dunes are also covered with whale and seal bones from the 19th century, when the whaling industry was going strong. And yes, there are human skeletons, too: the remains of all the sailors who lost their lives to the rough seas, jagged rocks, and opaque fog.

The wreck-inspired accommodations, which were recently featured on Robb Report, were designed by Namibian architect Nina Maritz. The cabins are sleek enough for a luxury safari lodge, but at the same time, the jagged protruding ribs remind the vacationer that they're sleeping a few yards away from whale bones. They're stunning to look at, and they perfectly capture the dangerous beauty of the landscape.

On the inside, the dwellings are much less foreboding, and are filled with Instagram-worthy modern decor. A central building boasts a restaurant and lounge, and if you're in the mood for seeing some living animals, you can take a game drive to admire some giraffes and lions.

If staying in an isolated locale that 15th-century Portuguese sailors called "The Gates of Hell" doesn't give you the willies, you can book your stay now. Rates start at 10,200 Namibian dollars (about $778 U.S.).

[h/t Robb Report]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios