While some recipes, dishes and methods of food preparation have been passed down over centuries and even millennia, it can be difficult to determine exactly what our ancestors ate and drank. On occasion, though, archeological excavations afford us a direct insight into how people historically prepared and consumed food.
In 2010, for example, marine archeologists retrieved 168 bottles of near-perfect champagne from a Baltic Sea shipwreck. And in Jordan’s Black Desert in 2018, researchers discovered a 14,000-year-old piece of bread. These finds, and others like them, have helped further our understanding of what our ancestors ate and drank and provided a tangible link with the past. In some cases, the foodstuffs were even safe to consume or were able to be analysed and then recreated in the modern era.
From Irish ‘bog butter’ to ancient Greek salad dressing, here are 10 of the oldest foods and beverages ever discovered.
1. Egyptian tomb cheese
During an excavation of the tomb of pharaoh Ptahmes in 2013-2014, archaeologists stumbled upon an unusual find: cheese. The cheese had been stored in jars and was estimated to be 3,200 years old, making it the oldest known cheese in the world. Tests indicate that the cheese was likely made from sheep or goat milk and is significant because there had previously been no evidence of cheese production in ancient Egypt.
Tests also indicated that the cheese had traces of bacteria that would cause brucellosis, a disease that comes from consuming unpasteurised dairy products.
2. Chinese bone soup
For millennia, cultures throughout the world have consumed soups and broths for medicinal purposes. In ancient China, bone soup was used to support digestion and improve the kidneys.
In 2010, excavations of a tomb near Xian unveiled a pot that still contained bone soup from over 2,400 years ago. Experts believe that the tomb was of a warrior or member of the land-owning class. It was the first discovery of bone soup in Chinese archaeological history.
3. Bog butter
‘Bog butter’ is exactly what it sounds like: butter found in bogs, primarily in Ireland. Some samples of bog butter, typically stored in wooden containers, have been dated back over 2,000 years, and researchers have estimated the practice of burying butter originated in the first century AD.
It’s unclear why the practice started. The butter may have been buried to preserve it for longer as the temperatures in bogs were low. It is also thought that because butter was a valuable item, burying it would protect it from thieves and invaders and that many stashes of bog butter were never retrieved because they were forgotten about or lost.
4. Edward VII coronation chocolate
To mark the coronation of Edward VII on 26 June 1902, several commemorative items were made including mugs, plates and coins. Tins of chocolates were also handed out to the public including those made in St Andrews. One schoolgirl, Martha Grieg, was given one of these tins. Remarkably, she didn’t eat any of the chocolates. Instead, the tin, with the chocolates inside, was passed down through 2 generations of her family. Martha’s granddaughter generously donated the chocolates to the St Andrews Preservation Trust in 2008.
5. Shipwrecked champagne
In 2010, divers found 168 bottles of champagne amongst a wreck at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. The champagne is over 170 years old, making it the oldest drinkable champagne in the world.
The champagne had been preserved in a near-perfect state so was able to be tasted and drunk, and it provided important evidence in how champagne and alcohol were made in the 19th century. Those that tasted the champagne said that it was very sweet, probably due to there being 140 grams of sugar per litre, compared to 6-8 grams (sometimes none at all) in modern champagne.
6. Salad dressing
Discovered in a shipwreck in the Aegean Sea in 2004 was a jar of salad dressing dating from 350 BCE. After the contents of the ship were recovered in 2006, tests were carried out on the jar, revealing a mix of olive oil and oregano inside. This recipe is still used today, having been passed down through generations in Greece, as adding a herb like oregano or thyme to olive oil not only adds flavour but also preserves it.
7. Antarctic fruitcake
Fruitcakes, made with strong spirits such as whisky, brandy and rum, can last for long periods of time. The alcohol in the cake can act as a preservative, killing bacteria, so fruit cakes can be stored for several months without spoiling.
Its long shelf life, as well as its rich ingredients, made fruitcake an ideal supply for Robert Falcon Scott’s Antarctic expedition in 1910-1913. In 2017 during the Antarctic Heritage Trust’s excavation of the Cape Adare hut, used by Scott, a fruitcake was found.
8. World’s oldest bottle of beer
In 1797 the ship Sydney Cove was wrecked off the coast of Tasmania. Sydney Cove was carrying 31,500 litres of beer and rum. 200 years later, the wreck of Sydney Cove was discovered by divers and the area was declared a historic site. Archaeologists, divers and historians worked to retrieve items – including sealed glass bottles – from the wreck.
To commemorate this discovery, the Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery, the Australian Wine Research Institute and brewer James Squire worked to recreate the beer using yeast extracted from the historic brews. The Wreck Preservation Ale, a porter, was created and sold in 2018. Only 2,500 bottles were produced and provided a unique opportunity to taste the past.
9. The oldest piece of bread
Whilst excavating a stone fireplace in Jordan’s Black Desert in 2018, archaeologists found the world’s oldest known piece of bread. Estimated to be 14,000 years old, the bread looked like a pitta bread but was made from oats and cereals similar to barley. Also included in the ingredients were tubers (an aquatic plant) which would have given the bread a salty taste.
10. Flood noodles
4,000-year-old millet noodles were discovered along the Yellow River in China. Archaeologists believe that an earthquake caused someone to abandon their dinner of noodles and flee. The bowl of noodles was then overturned and left in the ground. 4,000 years later, the bowl and surviving noodles were found, providing evidence that noodles originated in China, not Europe.