Study Explores Bronze Age, Plant-Based Food Delivery

Focused on their craft, miners would ship in pre-processed cereals to stay well-fed while working.

The Late Bronze Age mining site of Prigglitz-Gasteil, in Austria, during excavation. (Photo by Peter Trebsche, University of Innsbruck, via Courthouse News)

(CN) — Some 3,000 years before Grubhub came along, copper miners in the Eastern Alps were getting their food delivered. 

Mining communities imported processed foods, like barley and millet, to round out their foraging diets, new archaeological research shows, highlighting in particular the role of plant-based foods during the late Bronze Age. 

The Prigglitz-Gasteil mining site, in present-day Austria, was active between the 11th and 9th Century BCE. There, copper ore was both mined and processed. It was smelted, refined and cast on artificial terrain terraces. 

As previous archaeological studies have shown, during that time, craftspeople and miners focused their efforts on that specialized work, rather than on putting food on the table — a tradeoff relatable, perhaps, to anyone who has ever opted for takeout when things were busy at work. 

Past research has largely focused on how animal-based foods fed hungry miners — they preferred pork. A new study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, describes the remains of plants. 

It highlight what studying plants of the past can tell us about human history, adding new data to researchers’ understanding of how ancient mining communities got their food. 

Archaeologists analyzed cereal plant remains discovered at Prigglitz-Gasteil, which showed evidence of having been processed in various ways, including grinding and dehulling the grains. 

Charred bits of 3,000-year-old millet and lentils. (Credit: Heiss et al 2021)

However, there are few signs of plant remains that were tossed away during the processing — like chaff — or of tools used to process the cereal. 

That means it’s likely that the cereal food the miners ate was processed, or even possibly cooked, off-site, then brought to the mining communities. 

The study was led by Andreas Heiss, a researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. 

In remarks released with the research, Heiss posited that food is an artifact, “just like an axe, a jug or a table.” He makes the case for including culinary artifacts into classical archaeobotany — the specialized study of human interaction with plants in the past. 

“[T]his study provides not only further evidence on the consumption patterns in Bronze Age mining, but also helps open the door to prehistoric cuisine a little bit further,” Heiss said. 

The data for the study came from archaeological excavations that took place between 2010 and 2014. Doing a high-resolution analysis of microdebris, the researchers analyzed the food plant spectrum at the mining settlement, while also studying the larger bits of charred plant remains. 

That allowed them to reconstruct the miners’ and metalworkers’ diets, opening new insights into the prehistoric scene. The cereal products included barley, Hordeum vulgare, and foxtail millet. Foraging of fruits and nuts also significantly contributed to the daily diet, the study finds. 

It’s not clear exactly where the imported food came from, or if the grains were processed in nearby farmlands or from more distant sources. The study authors position cereal preparations as a “missing link” between crop and consumption. 

Answering further questions about what Bronze Age miners ate will take further studies. But the authors say these new findings help to pinpoint the ways that specialized mining sites got their essentials.

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