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3,000-Year-Old Cooking Fail Found At A Danish Dig Site

This 3,000-year-old pot was found with burnt cheese residue still inside.
Courtesy of Museum Silkeborg
This 3,000-year-old pot was found with burnt cheese residue still inside.

Denmark currently holds the title of world's happiest country. But we could imagine at least one Norseman back in time who, after a failed cooking attempt, probably felt little of the famed Danish hygge.

In a hilly wetland north of Silkeborg, archaeologists have unearthed a wholly intact Bronze Age clay pot containing a cheesy and charred residue burned to its inside.

"It's a glassy, foamy substance, a lot like when you've had a fire and the ashes have been burning so hot that they sometimes cinder together, forming a crumpy texture," says Kaj F. Rasmussen, head archaeologist from Silkeborg Museum. "It seems to be related to myseost from Norway, a brown whey cheese."

For the uninitiated, myseost — or mysost — is a cheese redolent of sweet caramel notes. This, however, was just ancient, burnt cheese. Its discovery can also be attributed to its container, which withstood the test of time.

"Normally, the vessels we find would be smashed to bits and deposited on the hillside in lake areas, and therefore, organic material would be damaged," he says. "Luckily, this [dig] is on a hilltop and the pit [where we found the pot] was dug into a clay deposit. Not much water got to it ... and oxygen access wasn't that great, either."

After delivering microscopic samples of the vitrified material to Denmark's National Museum, Kaj and his team got their answer: "What we've found are bovine lipids," says chemist and senior consultant Mads Christian Christensen of the in Denmark. "These acids are not common in ordinary animal fats. We think it came from the stomach of cows, where there are a lot of bacteria that produce such carbon fatty acids."

Now, previous archaeological finds have suggested humankind has been making cheese for at least 7,000 years. But as this Bronze Age find attests, trial and error appears to be a timeless method to the madness of creating good food.

"We all know what happens when you overheat normal cheese in the oven — it stinks like you wouldn't believe," says Kaj. My guess is that this vessel was smoking and stinking the place up, so somebody had to get rid of it. The easiest way was to carry it outside and deposit it upside down in the pit and then cover it — done with that, no more messy kitchen!"

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marius Stankiewicz