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Arthur Tanner/Getty Images
Arthur Tanner/Getty Images

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.”

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Say They May Have Found the Skeleton of the Pirate "Black Sam" Bellamy
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iStock

The skeleton of a famous pirate dead for more than three centuries may have been discovered. This week, researchers in Massachusetts announced they'd found a human skeleton near the wreck of a ship that went down off the coast of Cape Cod in 1717—and they think it just might be the remains of New England's greatest pirate, Samuel "Black Sam" Bellamy.

Born to a poor English family in 1689, Bellamy joined the British navy at age 13. Following the War of Spanish Succession, Bellamy relocated to Massachusetts in 1715.

It's said that Bellamy fell in love with a local beauty named Maria Hallett, whose parents didn't want their daughter marrying a lowly sailor. This bit of folklore might be baseless—although historians do know that a young woman with that name did live in Eastham, Mass. at the time. But in any case, Bellamy soon left the colony to pursue a get-rich scheme.

He and a friend had learned that a treasure-laden Spanish fleet had recently sunk near the Florida Keys, so the duo promptly headed south. After failing to salvage any loot, Bellamy turned to a life of piracy, gathering a crew, acquiring a couple of sailing canoes, and heading out into the open seas. He had a real knack for the work: He captured more than 50 ships from 1716 to 1717. Forbes magazine has calculated that all the loot Bellamy seized would be worth $120 million in modern U.S. dollars.


Gold recovered from wreck of the Whydah.
Theodore Scott, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Despite the dark nickname bestowed by others—and his considerable net worth—Bellamy hated wealthy elites with a passion and liked to call himself the "Robin Hood of the Sea".

The flagship of Bellamy's fleet was the 300-ton Whydah, a former British slave vessel. In 1717, the pirate took the ship up to New England. Then, on April 26, 1717, a wicked storm sank the Whydah off the coast of Wellfleet. Most of the crew—including Bellamy—went down with it.

In 1984, marine explorer Barry Clifford and his diving team found the ship's wreckage. More than 200,000 artifacts from the site have since been taken ashore. To give them a proper home, Clifford established the Whydah Pirate Museum in West Yarmouth in 2016.

This past November, researchers at the museum found part of a human skeleton inside a hardened block of sediment they'd taken from the Whydah's general area a few years ago. The slab also contained a belt, some cufflinks, and—most interestingly—a pistol. According to an Associated Press report, this gun is believed to have been Bellamy's.

Forensic scientists at the University of New Haven plan to compare DNA from the bones against that of a living Bellamy descendant in England. Whether the skeleton turns out to be the famous captain's or somebody else's, though, it'll most likely be interred—eventually. On February 19, the bones will be on display during a press conference.

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Cat Jarman, Courtesy of Antiquity
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
This Mass Grave in England May Hold the Skeletons of Hundreds of Viking Invaders
Cat Jarman, Courtesy of Antiquity
Cat Jarman, Courtesy of Antiquity

In the late 9th century, a powerful army of Vikings from across Scandinavia joined forces to achieve a common goal: invade and conquer Anglo-Saxon England. Now, archaeologists think they may have identified the remains of hundreds of these marauding Norsemen, according to a new report published in the journal Antiquity.

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a mass grave containing hundreds of skeletons on the grounds of St. Wystan's, a historic Ango-Saxon church in Repton, Derbyshire. Excavations that continued into the 1980s revealed that the mound contained 264 bodies, buried together in what appeared to be a partially leveled Anglo-Saxon chapel. Men comprised 80 percent of the remains, with several exhibiting signs of violent injury. Some graves held Scandinavian-style funerary goods, including a pendant of Thor's hammer and a Viking sword. One contained four children—possibly sacrificial offerings. The researchers also found the vestiges of a large defensive ditch.

mass grave of viking army at repton
© Martin Biddle

detail of mass viking grave at repton
© Martin Biddle

The researchers thought the mound was a Viking Great Army burial site; Anglo-Saxon records say Scandinavian combatants wintered in Repton in 873-874 CE, after forcing the local king into exile, and coins found at the site date to the same era.

Radiocarbon dating, however, suggested that some remains were actually from the 7th and 8th centuries CE. This meant that the skeletons would have been buried over the course of several centuries—some of them before the Vikings' arrival. The age of skeletons remained a point of contention among archaeologists for years.

Viking Era bones discovered at a burial mound in Repton, England
© Martin Biddle

Viking Era bones discovered at a burial mound in Repton, England.
© Martin Biddle

The current study found that those dates were wrong. University of Bristol archaeologist Cat Jarman re-evaluated the skeletons using a new form of carbon dating. She found that the bones did all date back to the late 9th century, contradicting initial tests. This mistake wasn't due to poor research methods, but to the Vikings' fish-heavy diets, she said.

"The previous radiocarbon dates from this site were all affected by something called marine reservoir effects, which is what made them seem too old," Jarman explained in a press statement. "When we eat fish or other marine foods, we incorporate carbon into our bones that is much older than in terrestrial foods. This confuses radiocarbon dates from archaeological bone material, and we need to correct for it by estimating how much seafood each individual ate."

Jarman says that pinpointing the age of the Repton burial mound helps illuminate the history of the earliest Viking raiders, who went on to become part of a considerable Scandinavian settlement in England. "Although these new radiocarbon dates don't prove that these were Viking army members, it now seems very likely," she said. "It also shows how new techniques can be used to reassess and finally solve centuries-old mysteries."

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