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Twelve of the fourteen rings made of clay are shown, as well as the charred organic cereal rings. Source: (B. Biederer / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Unique Cereal Rings Were Not Made To Eat, So What Are They?

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Archaeologists often come across curious items and artifacts that are unusual. In Austria, a team of archaeologists has made a most uncommon discovery. While excavating a Bronze Age site they found a 3000-year-old product that is made from grains. It is hoped this rather unusual find will provide new insights into the lives and minds of a Bronze Age people.

Strange Cereal Based Artifacts

The cereal-based products were found at the important Late Bronze Age site of Stillfried an der March in Austria, not far from the Hungarian border. This is a sprawling 23-hectare (57 acres) site was once a ringfort, which was a round fortified settlement. It was on some important trade routes and also possibly a textile producing center .

According to Heritage Daily “archaeological materials have been excavated from around 100 pits interpreted as grain storage pits.” It seems that between 1000 and 900 BC that this site was very important for the storage of cereal in the region.

River March/Morava is visible in the upper part of the image. The reconstructed former fortification ramparts of the late Bronze Age hillfort are outlined in red. (University of Vienna / CC BY-SA 4.0)

River March/Morava is visible in the upper part of the image. The reconstructed former fortification ramparts of the late Bronze Age hillfort are outlined in red. (University of Vienna / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Cereal-Rings Found in the Pit

Archaeologists found the “fragmentary charred remains of three ring-shaped objects,” according to Phys.org. The rings range from about one to one and a half inches or 2.6 to 3.6 centimeters in diameter. The items were apparently deliberately deposited in one of the many pits found at Stillfried. The unusual artifacts were studied by Andreas G. Heiss and his colleagues at the Austrian Archaeological Institute, in Vienna, and published in PLOS ONE .

The pit were the cereal-rings were discovered. The grey layer at the bottom is the burnt debris which contained the rings. In the foreground, the charred plank is visible. (Stillfried, State Collections of Lower Austria / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The pit were the cereal-rings were discovered. The grey layer at the bottom is the burnt debris which contained the rings. In the foreground, the charred plank is visible. (Stillfried, State Collections of Lower Austria / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The team employed electron microscopy to investigate the unusual ring-shaped items, that resemble mini doughnuts or big Cheerios. They were able to confirm that the artifacts were made out of a dough that had originally been a combination of wheat and barley. The items are in good condition and they had been deliberately covered which protected them for three millennia.
The flour used to make the dough was of the finest quality. The report says that they were “most likely shaped from wet cereal mixture and dried without baking”. Other foods have been found at the ringfort and they were not made in the same way as the three rings. This has persuaded the researchers that the rings made from cereal were not a foodstuff.

Used in Rituals?

If they are not food, then why were they produced? The research team believes that they may have found an answer. Some clay rings were found near the pit where the cereal-based products were unearthed. These clay items are probably loom weights that were used when weaving on a handloom. It is possible that the 3000-year-old cereal rings were based on these weights and had some symbolic value.

Charred organic cereal rings. (N. Gail / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Charred organic cereal rings. (N. Gail / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The time and effort that went into producing these rings would indicate that they “may have been created for some unknown ritual purpose” reports Heritage Daily . The cereal rings may have been used for ritualistic or religious purposes. The fact that the products were placed in a pit with some care, may indicate that they were an offering to a deity .

There is also the possibility that they were ritual foods and made to be used in ceremonies in a shrine or temple. The findings indicate that Bronze Age bakers not only used cereal for bread but also for ceremonial items .

An Insight into the Bronze Age

The cereal-based products are adding invaluable information into the Bronze Age culture. The use of what would have been precious foodstuffs can tell us so much about an ancient culture. Phys.org quotes Heiss, as stating that the study is offering new “insights into the material culture of food, symbolism, and diversity of dishes.”

This is something of a first according to the authors of the report and there are not any other examples from other sites. The lack of other examples may be because experts were not looking for them, or that they may have decayed over time. The team believes that there are probably more samples of the cereal-rings in other Bronze Age sites. Their full report with conclusions are published in the on-line journal PLOS ONE.

Top image: Twelve of the fourteen rings made of clay are shown, as well as the charred organic cereal rings. Source: (B. Biederer / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

By Ed Whelan

Comments

Unlike Giovarni, pasta did not immediately spring to mind, however speaking as a cook who has ancient and medieval cooking as a hobby 2 uses spring to mind. Firstly, it can be hard cooking a lump of dough the size of a bagel without it turning to a slurry in the liquid - you have 2 issues, if you dump it into a rolling boiling pot, the action of the water tossing it around would possibly dissolve the ring, or cook only the outside without remoistening the inside so you would get an inedible hunk of rock hard dough wrapped in a thin layer of cooked paste. If you take the first comment, you then have a different concept. The ring shape is because they would store the dough lump like a string of chinese pierced coins by hanging - it would keep them dry as they would be exposed to air on all sides which would help keep them vermin free. Now that you have a reasonable portable portion sized stored dough, what can you do with it? You can trade it as it is reasonably portable and can be wrapped in folded cloth instead of having to haul around a basket or pot of loose fluffy powder. You have it in a portion control size, so you can instruct an apprentice to use so many rings per recipe. What can you do with the rings? You can pound them back into a powder and reform them with other ingredients into breads, you can dump them into a pot of cold water, mash it up into a slurry and brew with it, or you can use the slurry to thicken a stew.

As a fan of experimental archeologists I might have a go at reproducing the rings and then see what I can do with them at various stages [freshly dried, dried 3, 6 and 12 months] how well they store, how to store and transport them and what I can do with them once I have them.

Going by described size, they look like about 4 oz US measure of flour ... now I just need to dig out my flours and clear an area to settle them in the sun to dry.

Pasta is dried ground grain or seed, however most pasta also has salt, sometimes egg with yolk or without yolk and occasionally some form of oil ... but a lump of dried grain dough the size of a bagel would probably dissolve into a slurry if they tried to just boil it up ...

were did i put my pasta sauce ,after all pasta is dried wheat flour !

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