Outlandish Food Artifacts Found In Plain Sight

One of the best lenses through which one can learn about another culture is via their food habits. While time travel may not be possible in the literal sense of the word, we can travel back in time and discover the culinary predilections of societies long ago through food archaeology. According to Knowable Magazine, the task of piecing together the food habits of ancient peoples used to rely upon circumstantial evidence linking remnants of pottery, for example, with signs of a campfire. Often, these findings couldn't be corroborated and the risk of contamination couldn't be ruled out. 

However, with the invention of technological advances, such as gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, scientists can now identify complex molecular data from lipids, proteins, and microbes and even utilize these to recreate recipes. These food artifacts are not only fascinating because of how they capture a moment in culinary history, they are a testament to the capacity of nature to withstand the ravages of time. 

2,300-year-old bog butter

In the archives of the National Museum of Ireland's archaeology collection, you can find samples of bog butter dating back 2,300 years. According to Atlas Obscura, these samples were discovered by unsuspecting Irish citizens while digging in peat bogs to obtain fuel for heating their homes. The butter had been buried in containers ranging from animal skins to wooden and earthenware vessels. Due to the idyllic environmental conditions of the peat bogs, namely low oxygen and high acidity, the butter was likely placed there as a means of extending its life expectancy.

As noted in Smithsonian Magazine, stable isotope analysis and radiocarbon dating of the bog butter suggest that dairy was an important component of the human diet far earlier than had previously been assumed. Researchers also contend that since butter was buried alongside other items of value, such as gold and weapons, it may have also held a ritualistic value to ancient cultures.

Regardless of the reason for burying it, the resulting butter was nothing like what we consume today; instead, Ben Reade, head of culinary research and development at Nordic Food Lab, describes it as "funky." This unique quality is likely a result of the fat soaking up minerals from the surrounding bog environment.

1,700-year-old wine you can probably still drink

Housed in Germany's Historical Museum of the Palatinate is what is considered to be the world's oldest bottle of wine. Named after the German city of Speyer where it was discovered in 1867, the sealed bottle of wine was recovered from a Roman sarcophagus, as stated by The Economic Times.

According to Atlas Obscura, the 1.5-liter bottle – artfully decorated with dolphin-shaped handles – has been dated by researchers to approximately 325 B.C. While the contents are not verifiable, bottles of wine in that era were often fortified with herbs, presumably for the purpose of flavor and perhaps to aid in preservation. This particular bottle is sealed with a substantial wax layer and contains a concentrated skin of olive oil atop the wine. Scientists assert that while the wine might be potable, it wouldn't be particularly satisfying to consume and its viscosity would create a rather unpleasant mouth feel.

Bread that survived the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79

While the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 has been remarkably documented by the archaeological excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, what is perhaps even more impressive is the intact loaf of bread that was discovered by researchers. As Ancient History notes, the charred specimen, which can be viewed at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, was likely preserved when it was carbonized in the inferno.

According to Saveur, the loaf was branded with the words "celer, slave of quintus granius verus," a practice that was common during that era. Because loaves of bread were often brought to communal bakeries, identification was necessary to insure the correct loaf made it back to the proper owner. As such, each family had its own unique, bronze bread stamp that was imprinted on every loaf of bread. Additionally, because bread was commodified, if the stamp was tampered with owners of the loaf could seek legal prosecution for the adulteration of their precious asset.

Oldest edible ham has its very own ham cam

Located in the Isle of Wight County Museum in Smithfield, Virginia, the oldest ham might still be safe to eat, but its texture and flavor likely wouldn't be suitable for modern tastes, per Atlas Obscura. The ham was salt-cured in 1902 using a method that ensured maximum shelf life. When Pembroke D. Gwaltney Jr., the ancestor of the Gwaltney Foods meat company, found the ham some 20 years later, he placed a brass collar around it and adopted it as his "pet ham" – a testament to the prowess with which his family could preserve meat. While you may not be able to partake in the flavors of this porcine delicacy, you can observe it via the "ham cam" alongside the world's largest ham and the world's oldest peanut.

Atlas Obscura adds that Gwaltney Foods paved the way for pork magnate Smithfield Foods by putting the town of Smithfield on the map as the ham capital of the U.S. Smithfield Foods is now headquartered in the town.

Bolivian wild peanut may point to early use of hybridization

According to Science Daily, the discovery of a wild species of peanut previously thought to be extinct may point to the hybridization of the modern-day peanut some 10,000 years ago. The specimen in question – A. ipaensis – resurfaced in the foothills of the Andes mountains in modern-day Bolivia, hundreds of miles away from where the original species likely evolved. Scientists surmise that ancient hunter-gatherers likely brought the seeds with them when they migrated to the area. Here, bees were able to cross-pollinate with the Arachis duranensis varietal to create the modern-day peanut.

Through the use of the molecular clock technique being cross-referenced with botanical collections, researchers of the University of Georgia – in conjunction with the International Peanut Genome Initiative – were able to pinpoint when and how this hybridization occurred (via Scientific American). 

The implications of this discovery are vast. Not only do we now have a better understanding of the history of how the peanut became a staple food item in cultures around the world, but we can now identify traits that were favored by evolution to cultivate a heartier and more disease-resistant crop.

4,000-year-old Chinese noodles

Contrary to popular belief, noodles did not originate in Italy, but rather in China. As reported by The Archaeologist, in 2002, researcher Ye Maolin of the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences was conducting excavations of the Lajia site, the scene of an ancient earthquake. During these excavations, Maolin stumbled upon an inverted bowl of pottery. When the bowl was turned over, he found that a pile of noodles had been vacuum sealed during the cataclysm, which resulted in a pristinely preserved sample.

Radiocarbon dating of artifacts from this site indicates that the disaster occurred approximately 4,000 years ago, making the 50-centimeter-long noodles the earliest known evidence of noodle consumption, per BBC. Further analysis of the noodles indicates that they were made with two kinds of indigenous millet as opposed to the more modern-day use of wheat. Researchers also assert that the noodles appear to be a precursor to a type in production today called a La-Mian noodle, which is a hand-forged noodle that is stretched out multiple times to create its characteristic consistency and length.

3,200-year-old Egyptian cheese is the first of its kind

While conducting archaeological excavations of the ancient Egyptian tomb of Ptahmes at the necropolis of Saqqara near Cairo, researchers discovered an unidentifiable white mass atop a bevy of jars, per Time. The sample – which dates back to roughly the 13th century B.C. – was later discovered to be a cheese made of sheep and goat's milk. The 3,200-year-old specimen is the first to be found that indicates the consumption of cheese in ancient Egypt and is the oldest known sample of cheese ever discovered. Cheese historian and chemistry professor Paul Kindstedt notes that based on his experience, a cheese like this would have a "really, really acidy" flavor.

According to BBC, a residue of a bacteria that is linked to the consumption of unpasteurized dairy products was also found on the specimen. Known as brucellosis, this condition can cause fever, sweating, and muscle aches.

100-year-old frozen fruitcake

In the frozen tundra of Cape Adare, Antarctica, researchers made a discovery that reinforced the age-old adage of the fruitcake being indestructible. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the Terra Nova expedition party discovered a fruitcake in a settlement that was built in 1899; it was still in the original Huntley & Palmers bakery tin. While the metal had deteriorated, the fruitcake itself was safely wrapped in wax paper and appeared almost edible.

As noted by National Geographic, fruitcake was — and still is — a popular food item amongst the British, particularly with a spot of tea. With a climate as inhospitable as Antarctica, the delicacy would have been even more desirable due to its nutritional density. Unfortunately, it was never consumed as the team of explorers was presumed dead after a delay in their return from their expedition.

The Smithsonian Magazine also states that once the cake was stabilized by conservators at the Canterbury Museum lab in Christchurch, New Zealand, it was to be returned to the original site where it was found. Here, it will be on display, along with some 1,500 artifacts that were also recovered the site.

5,500-year-old jar of Georgian honey

Honey has long been purported to have an almost incalculable shelf life, and this 5,500-year-old jar discovered near Tbilisi, Georgia, may just prove that, per Eurasianet. Not unlike previously discovered relics of honey found in Egyptian tombs, this sample was likely part of the gifts that would have been buried to accompany a wealthy individual into the afterlife.

While honey can go bad if it becomes contaminated or is improperly stored, Healthline notes that there are a few unique attributes to this substance that contribute to its ability to withstand the test of time. Its high sugar content and low moisture content mean that microbes cannot proliferate as easily. Acidity is also a factor as honey generally has a pH ranging from 3.4 to 6.1, which is not suitable for many common bacteria. And finally, honey bees secrete a natural enzyme that eventually converts to hydrogen peroxide in the aging process, which further prevents the production of bacteria.

220-year-old beer survives shipwreck

Discovered aboard a shipwrecked vessel that had been sitting below frigid waters off the coast of Tasmania since 1797, beer has experienced a revival. According to Live Science and BBC, the ship was commissioned by Campbell and Clark to bring goods to a prison colony in Port Jackson when it sank. Survivors of the vessel salvaged what they could and made their way to Preservation Island. Of the 26 bottles of beer that were recovered, one remains on display at the Queen Victoria Museum in Launceston, Tasmania. The remaining bottles were reserved for research.

Enter Australian brewing company, James Squire. As reported by BBC, when live yeast samples were found in one of the bottles, the Australian Wine Research Institute mobilized to cultivate a specimen that could be scaled up for commercial brewing. In partnership with James Squire, "The Wreck Preservation Ale" was born. While distribution has remained limited, the museum has seen this as a remarkable way of keeping history alive one pint at a time.

Israeli olive tree thought to be oldest in the world

An olive tree located in Bethlehem, called the al Badawi, is believed to be the oldest living tree in the world at 4,000 to 5,000 years old, per Smithsonian Magazine. Paired with discoveries from nearby excavations of the town of Ein Zippori, researchers believe that there is evidence pointing to a culture of cultivating olives for oil dating back 8,000 years.

As reported in The Times of Israel, residue from ceramic vessels recovered at the site was compared with the chemical composition of modern-day olive oil and the samples proved to be indisputably similar. Other discoveries throughout the region suggest pre-Jewish cultures that worshipped fertility were already consuming diets similar to the now-renowned Mediterranean diet that is rich in grains, must, and olive oil as documented in the Bible. However, researchers note that it is impossible to ascertain for certain whether the oil was used for fuel, sustenance, or both.

120-year-old box of Cadbury chocolate has a royal connection

A 120-year-old bar of Cadbury chocolate was discovered in its original tin amongst Australian poet Banjo Paterson's belongings, per Daily Mail. When recovered from the author's personal collection, the bar of chocolate was well-preserved by the original silver foil and straw within the tin.

These chocolates were commissioned by Queen Victoria as a gift for troops fighting in the Boer Wars, between 1899 and 1902. The queen ordered approximately 80,000 tins of cocoa from Cadbury that were to be engraved with the words "South Africa, 1900...I wish you a happy new year, Victoria RI." Cadbury, however, were Quaker pacifists opposed to the war and originally refused to fill the order with the engraved words. Eventually, they caved to the will of the queen when she reinforced the importance of the troops knowing where the chocolate came from. Cadbury subsequently recommended that the cocoa be made into ready-to-eat bars of chocolate and proceeded to mark some of these with the queen's message.

The chocolate bars became popular trade commodities and were often sold by the troops for 5 to 10 pounds apiece. The notable chocolate bar is now housed at the National Library of Australia.

2,400-year-old shipwrecked salad dressing

Amphoras recovered from a 2,400-year-old shipwreck located in the Aegean Sea off the coast of the Greek island of Chios appear to contain remnants of an ancient recipe for salad dressing, per NBC News. Using DNA samples, scientists determined the presence of olives and oregano, a combination common in modern-day Greece. Researchers note that the use of herbs for both seasoning and as a natural preservative is well-documented and may have been the key to the residue surviving for such a long period underwater.

According to Live Science, analyses of the contents of other amphora recovered at the site may help to reconstruct a better picture of the food habits of ancient Greeks and Romans – in particular, which crops were cultivated, and how foods were prepared and preserved. However, isolating meaningful data from these samples may prove to be a challenge due to the nature of erosion in the harsh underwater environment. There is also some concern about the samples being cross-contaminated by the presence of surrounding marine life, specifically where remnants of seafood dishes may be found. 

McDonald's fries from the 1950s that didn't spoil

According to NBC News, a family in a northern suburb of Chicago, Illinois, made a remarkable discovery during a routine home remodeling project. When they removed a portion of the wall to replace a toilet paper holder insert, they found a towel wrapped around something. At first, the couple feared a sinister discovery but were pleasantly surprised to find an old bag of McDonald's with two hamburger wrappers and some half-eaten french fries.

The specimen dates back to the 1950s, as is evidenced by the image of the early mascot, Speedee, on the bag. Speedee was subsequently replaced by Ronald McDonald. According to the local Chamber of Commerce, a McDonald's location offering carry-out only opened half a mile from the house in 1959 — the year the house was built. It would have been an affordable yet novel meal that supernaturally managed to withstand the test of time.