Is Holey Bread, Holy Bread or Wholly Bread?

A 'bread-like object' with a hole in it illustrates a gap in our knowledge of prehistoric cuisine.

What did people eat in prehistoric times? There are ways of finding out, and archaeobotany is a bustling field, identifying the plants people used. A new paper in PLOS One by Heiss and colleagues shows that while we know a fair amount about the ingredients, we don’t know much about what they ate. The problem is encapsulated in a quote they take from Sherratt: “People do not eat species, they eat meals.”

A view overlooking the hillfort of Stillfried an der March
Aerial view of Stillfried an der March, as seen from the west. Heiss et al. 2019.
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. Insets indicate the location of the site at the Austrian-Slovakian border, and Austria’s location within Europe. Aerial Image No. 02030701.096 reprinted under a CC-BY license with permission from the Aerial Archive, Department of Prehistoric and Historical Archaeology, University of Vienna. Map sources: Wikimedia Commons, users TUBS and NordNordWest, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The reason this is a puzzle for the authors is due to three “bread-like objects”, they found at the hillfort of Stillfried an der March, by the Austria-Slovakia border. A hillfort, in this case, is a region on a hill with some earthworks around it. It might be defensive, but most days in the tenth century BCE it would have been a population centre. The presence of people matters, because if you want to go and do something social or ritual, there’s a strong possibility you’ll want to do it with other people. So to do the event, you’re likely to organise where the other people are.

The team already have evidence for other activities like metal-working (the site was active in the Late Bronze Age), and grain storage. Where the grain is, is a good place to mill and bake – which brings us to the mysterious objects.

SEM images of the ancient dough
SEM of patches of transverse cells in sample A, a and b with overlaying tubular cells. a, b, c, probably thin-walled transverse cells of the barley type (cf. Hordeum vulgare). d transverse cells of Triticum sp. in cross-section, arrows indicating the conspicuous wall thickenings and “wavy” aspect of the pitted thick walls. Image composed from a stack of 3 images using Helicon Focus 7. Image: die Angewandte / R. Erlach. Source: Heiss et al. 2019.

In a pit, they found fourteen clay rings or ring fragments. With them, they found the remains of three fragments of what could have been rings, made from baked goods containing wheat and barley. That’s a lot of words to say ‘ring-shaped loaf’, but that’s because it’s not that simple. It’s also tempted to leap to “prehistoric doughnut rings“, but the paper makes clear that you also have bagels, kerkelia, sa pertusitta, kolač, and plenty of other baked items as options. Heiss and colleagues state: “All of the aforementioned examples only share a roughly annular shape as common character, yet they are produced by following strongly diverging chaînes opératoires and intended to serve a wide range of different purposes. Consequently, the ring shape alone is an insufficient interpretive element for elucidating the nature of the Stillfried rings.”

As for prehistoric comparisons, they’re very few and far between. This absence is not surprising as organic material decomposes much more easily than clay, stone, or metal. There certainly seems to be something important about the items, as a view under a microscope shows; “Their finely ground flour and intentional shaping certainly indicate that more time was invested in their production than necessary for subsistence. The rings may therefore have been of higher value than the other cereal preparations described from Stillfried.”

Their deposition, with clay ring-shaped objects, interpreted as loom-weights, might also be intentional. So the items might have been high-status meals for a Bronze Age elite, or else ritual items intended as expensive sacrifices.

The paper concludes by noting the difficulties in pulling apart “profane” waste from sacred depositions, particularly with the lack of data from elsewhere to test ideas. Heiss and colleagues conclude that archaeologists could ease these problems by changing how they excavate this kind of item: “In order to recognise and preserve such “odd” objects, we strongly recommend direct sampling of charred plant concentrations, especially in “odd” contexts. Avoiding not only exposure to mechanical tensions but also to flotation seems to be crucial for gaining all available information on cereal food preparations.”

While archaeobotanists can still do a great job in identifying the ingredients, ethnobotany might also be an aid in interpreting what it is people are doing with the plants.

Further reading

Heiss, A. G., Antolín, F., Berihuete Azorín, M., Biederer, B., Erlach, R., Gail, N., … Valamoti, S. M. (2019). The Hoard of the Rings. “Odd” annular bread-like objects as a case study for cereal-product diversity at the Late Bronze Age hillfort site of Stillfried (Lower Austria). PLOS ONE, 14(6), e0216907. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0216907