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Testing the tastiness of food toasted in a Stone Age hole

Nothing says “time to eat!” like an eight by three-foot hole in the ground. Well, maybe “time to eat in a few days.” While this may not sound like a hip or even practical new eatery, it’s the conclusion reached by archaeologists who successfully recreated not only a pit-oven from 9,000 years ago, but also a meal cooked it was designed for.

The Stone Age oven was found on Cyprus at a site that has been occupied since the Neolithic era. At first glance it appears to only be a reinforced hole, lined with large stones. Tests of the ashes, clay and debris found inside confirmed that it was actually a pit oven, but there was one nagging question— how functional could it have been, when a hole of this size was likely to loose considerable amounts of heat and demand an intense amount of fuel and effort to be properly utilized?

A slow but tasty experiment

While pit ovens are still used today, such as the imu of Hawaii, they generally aren’t quite as large as the example found on Cyprus. Without a handy modern reference to consult, the research team from the University of Edinburgh and the owners of a local restaurant decided to recreate the oven to directly test how practical a device it was. They cheated a bit, using modern digging tools for example, but for the most part they stuck as close to the 9000 year-old-design as possible.

The recipe started with heating the pit for a day. Coals were lit and covered with a layer of stones so that food wouldn’t sit directly on the fuel. That food was primarily a pig, stuffed with Bulgar wheat, fennel, anise and bay leaf, and it was wrapped in a sack before being placed on the rocks. Seasoned goat meat was also added before it was all covered in more stones, sealed with mud and clay (hence the sacks on the meat). Finally, another fire was lit on top of that arrangement, which was maintained for another 24 hours before it was dug back up for the feast.

A feast to impress all your neighbors

This was obviously a lot of effort, but the pig and goat meat produced a lot of food, feeding 200 guests with leftovers and no complaints about the food being undercooked. Since so much food was produced, this oven probably wasn’t used frequently. The preparation left a lot of time to gather and wait though, suggesting plenty of time for socialization whenever a large meal was prepared. Once the feast was over, guests may have been able to preserve leftovers for a time by sealing meat in liquefied fat from the cooked animals, which seems like the messiest doggy bag I’ve ever heard of.

Of course, a smaller oven found near the original pit indicates that smaller meals wouldn’t have made use of the 36 hour pit method. But it was probably great when company showed up.

Source: Recreated Pit Roast Offers a Taste of Stone Age Life by Megan Gannon, Live Science

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