Rare cauldrons tell us what feasts were like 4000 years ago

Thanks to the antimicrobial properties of the cauldrons' metal alloys, archaeologists are able to study unprecedented protein preservation.
Sade Agard
(Left) Photograph of the cauldron and what is left today. (Right) Artistic reconstruction of the cauldron as it would have looked when in use.
(Left) Photograph of the cauldron and what is left today. (Right) Artistic reconstruction of the cauldron as it would have looked when in use.

iScience Wilkin et al.  

Archaeologists have unveiled detailed insights into the dietary habits of ancient people living in the Caucasus region during the Maykop period (3700–2900 BCE), according to a new study published in iScience

By analyzing protein residues from ancient cooking cauldrons, they uncovered evidence of a varied menu comprising deer, sheep, goats, and dairy.

Rare and prestigious cauldrons

Recovered from burial sites in the Caucasus region, the cauldrons reflect the region's historical significance spanning from Southwestern Russia to Turkey, including present-day Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. 

"It's really exciting to get an idea of what people were making in these cauldrons so long ago," said lead author Shevan Wilkin, from the University of Zurich, Switzerland, in a press release.

"This is the first evidence we have of preserved proteins of a feast—it's a big cauldron. They were obviously making large meals, not just for individual families."

The success of protein preservation owes much to the antimicrobial properties of the metal alloys constituting the cauldrons. Unlike ceramics or stone, where microbes would degrade proteins, the metal surface prevented such deterioration.

Rare cauldrons tell us what feasts were like 4000 years ago
Graphical illustration of the method used in this study.

Co-author Viktor Trifonov of the Institute for the History of Material Culture highlighted the gap this research fills: 

"We have already established that people at the time most likely drank a soupy beer, but we did not know what was included on the main menu."

Eight residue samples were collected from seven cauldrons, which revealed proteins from blood, muscle tissue, and milk. The presence of 'heat shock protein beta-1' indicated the cooking of deer or bovine tissues. In contrast, milk proteins suggested the preparation of dairy.

Radiocarbon dating

Remarkably, radiocarbon dating placed these cauldrons between 3520–3350 BCE, predating any previously analyzed vessels by over 3,000 years. 

"It was a tiny sample of soot from the surface of the cauldron," explained Trifonov. "Maykop bronze cauldrons of the fourth millennium BC are a rare and expensive item, a hereditary symbol belonging to the social elite."

Though exhibiting signs of use and wear, the cauldrons also revealed extensive repair work, reinforcing their value and societal significance. 

The authors added that this parallels modern iconic cookware brands like Le Creuset and Mauviel, which combine craftsmanship and functionality.

Given the significance of cuisine in culture, research like this can aid in grasping connections between various regions. Additionally, the study's methods highlight the potential of this fresh approach.

"If proteins are preserved on these vessels, there is a good chance they are preserved on a wide range of other prehistoric metal artifacts," concluded Wilkin. 

"We still have a lot to learn, but this opens up the field in a really dramatic way."

The complete study was published in iScience on August 18 and can be found here.

Study abstract:

Large metal and metal-alloy cauldrons first appear on the far western steppe and Caucasus region during the Maykop period (3700–2900 BCE), however the types of foods or beverages cooked in and served from these vessels has remained mysterious. Here we present proteomic analysis of nine residues from copper-alloy cauldrons from Maykop burial contexts where we identify muscle, blood, and milk proteins specific to domesticated, and possibly wild, ruminants. This study clearly demonstrates that the earliest, large-volume feasting vessels contained both primary and secondary animal products, likely prepared in the form of a stew.

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