Saturday, January 11, 2014

Saved by fire: breads in archeology

Of all artifacts in archeology, bread might be the least likely to survive. It is made after all to be consumed, to disintegrate in liquids, to crumble. And yet... it does. Rarely, relative to other products, and still more rarely as a coherent object. Still, bread has been found from eras going back thousands of years, and in places as different as Egypt, Sweden, Switzerland, Romania, France and England. Already in 2002, the French review Civilizations was able to dedicate an entire issue to "Bread, ovens and hearths of the past", including several articles on bread and grains found in archeology.

The most famous preserved bread comes from Pompeii. where volcanic ash left a "snapshot" of at least one bakery. Mercifully, however, we do not have to depend on volcanic eruptions to preserve such artifacts. A hot dry climate like Egypt's sometimes preserves them naturally. Far more often, it is fire that does the job. In rare cases, this fire is catastrophic and unexpected. But in tombs it has often been set intentionally, as part of a ritual. The result is a fitful but fascinating panorama of very different breads across different times and regions.

NOTE: Images of these breads are not included here but can (with some exceptions) be found in the original articles and a number of the books cited. 
Also, if this is an extensive post, it only surveys far more detailed material; readers of French with a serious interest in this subject may want to consult the original articles (linked below). 


Many of the source texts here are written in French, a language which (understandably) uses more precise terms for bread-baking. The English word “crumb” corresponds to both the inside of a bread (the French mie) and the crumbled fragments of a bread (the French miette). In English, the holes which appear in bread are no more than that: holes. To describe these as small or large, one has to described the bread as “close-crumbed”, “open-crumbed”, etc. In French, these are more precisely described as “eyes” (yeux) or “alveoli” (alveoles), and the presence of holes “alveolage” (a word sometimes now used in English as well, though by specialists).

Speakers of American English should also bear in mind that the English word “corn” long referred to any grain. American “corn” – maize – is not mentioned in any of what follows.

Beyond linguistic differences, “bread” and “pastry” are problematic terms when discussing prehistoric baked goods. Even today, bread is not necessarily leavened and much prehistoric bread was not. Some early bread in fact was basically cooked gruel. Nor has bread always been made of wheat or even other grains, like barley, now familiar to us. To be considered “bread”, however, a mass should typically have been bound by some form of liquid and subsequently heated (which may or may not be true of a “cake”, in its two different senses as a mass of a substance and a sweet baked product). Further, since much bread found in archeology has been burned, it may not look like bread at all. Hansson:
Sometimes bread loaves are found in a relatively undamaged condition, whereby it is possible already during excavation to ascertain that they indeed constitute bread. But most often, the loaves are fragmented into small, black, charred pieces, where no edge, over - or underside survives to indicate any original morphology. Such pieces cannot with certainty be designated as bread, since they can as well constitute some other cereal -based dish or even a charred faecal concretion. This type of small, black, charred material is also easily passed-over during excavation, being often mistaken for charcoal.
In the latter cases, declaring a find a “bread” can be a judgment call. In practice, archaeologists tend to err on the side of caution in this regard.

Some early breads are distinguished as galettes, a French term with several meanings, but here referring to a low crusty, typically round, baked item. Today this would be most often be a cake, like the famous galette des rois (for the Epiphany). But the unleavened, friable breads made from something like millet (which does not rise well) would also be considered galettes, as would some other breads from older cultures; this distinction is mainly made in France.

The word tourte sometimes refers to a kind of pie or tart, but in bread-baking refers to a slightly risen disk, usually roughly eight or nine inches across (the term is immensely variable), typically distinguished from a galette by being more leavened and "bread-like" (though not all breads described as tourtes have in fact been leavened). These are mentioned in Medieval baking regulations and even shown on some coats-of-arms. For prehistoric bread, of course, the term is used more approximately.

Finally, “pastry” may not be the most obvious word when seeing (in the original articles) images of burned, shapeless masses. The most obvious distinction here is some refinement – such as the use of egg white or a more careful preparation – which results in a marginally finer product than what has been identified as bread. The addition of honey, too, is one distinguishing element, though some additions, such as linseed or fruit, are also mentioned in regard to items classified as “bread”.


Max Währen, considered a pioneer in the archeology of bread, outlines a number of Neolithic breads and pastries in an article on “Bread, pastry and religion in Pre and Proto historic Europe”. He begins by writing that, in Europe, bread-baking was already known in Yugoslavia towards 4850/4700 B.C.E. and in Switzerland towards 4300 B.C.E. But the oldest perfectly preserved European bread was found at Doanne, on Lake Bienne in Switzerland:
This bread dates from 3560 to 3530 B.C., it was made from finely ground flour and leavening, and shows a nice curvature.... Its form and its fabrication do not allow it to be distinguished from leavened bread which still exists in the Alps, notably in the Valais.
...[Made of] wheat finely ground, 5500 years ago: diameter, about 17 cm, height: 4.5, to 5 cm, weight, around 330 g.
(Images of this and other breads can be seen in Währen's article.)

Währen also identifies several Stone Age finds as "pastries" of various sorts:

  1. barquettes (a kind of elongated oval pastry whose name means "little boats")
  2. Round tartlets, "made of finely ground wheat flour, with a very fine pastry base, sides 15 mm high and 2 mm thick (corresponding to our modern strawberry tarts)".
  3. "Tarts recalling our Alsatian tarts."
  4. Round "cuplets" of pastry, "made on strips of birch bark 4 cm long...these let the baking heat slowly and progressively spread, as is needed for pastries." These included honey poured in a hollow on the surface.
  5. "Oak bark was used for a lighter – because richer in egg white – pastry: it was known therefore exactly what sort of plate went with what sort of pastry." (Unfortunately, Währen says nothing more about the use of egg white here, which seems remarkably advanced for the period.)
  6. "The most astonishing of these pastries 5150 years old, we have called 'the Stone Age brioche'... [This was] the most refined cake known from prehistory, of a length of 92.3 mm , of a width of 73.3. mm, of a height of 52.2 mm and of a weight of 45.75 g. It had one side raised and the other flat. We had supposed that the dough must have been pressed into a cake mold. X-rays show irrefutably that a square mold... had been used and that the risen side was only formed afterward. Thus was discovered the oldest cake mold in the world."

Two of these pastries (dated 3178 to 3118 B.C.E.) bore "heating rocks": "The rock served not only to provide heat, but also as a thermometer and to form a hollow." In one, the hollow served as a receptacle for berries.

The Lake Villages

Bread found at other lake villages in Switzerland may also be among the world's oldest, depending on which dating one accepts. These widely described sites are typically identified as Neolithic, but in his book on them Keller writes: “Although the actual determination of the age of the lake dwellings is doubtful, yet we may say with perfect certainty that they are more than 2,000 years old; and, with a considerable amount of probability, that they reach back from 1,000 to 2,000 years before Christ.” By most (though not all) reckonings, this would put them in the Bronze Age. To complicate matters, the dating of the breads themselves is at best approximate.

At Robenhausen, bread was made of either wheat or millet; the latter was sometimes flavored with grains of wheat and linseed. The total weight of the bread found was eight pounds, said to correspond to forty pounds of freshly baked bread. Barley was found, but no barley bread, which was however found at Wangen. Keller describes the bread there:
The form of these cakes is somewhat round, and about an inch or an inch and a half high— one small specimen, nearly perfect, is about four or five inches in diameter. The dough did not consist of meal, but of grains of corn, more or less crushed. In some specimens the halves of grains of barley are plainly discernible. The under side of these cakes is sometimes flat, sometimes concave, and there appears no doubt that the mass of dough was baked by being laid on hot stones, and covered over with glowing ashes.
A cake of poppy seed was also found at Robenhausen, though the seeds may have been pressed for their oil.

Eastern Europe

Eastern Europe has also yielded a number of specimens of early bread, as documented by Monah.

At Postyrskoe in the Ukraine, the restored remains of half a tourte showed it had an oval form, being 7.8 cm at its widest point and 17.3 cm long, varying from 1 to 2.2 cm in thickness. It had been crudely made but from wheat and well-ground millet flour. “The tourte was compact, proving that no fermentation agents were used,” and seems to have been cooked without direct contact with the fire (something one might take for granted when ovens were common, but that was less obvious in earlier times).

This may have been similar to one found in the North Caucasus from the first century C.E.

The oldest archaeological bread mentioned in Romania comes from Calu. In a 1941 report, Radu Vulpe writes that it was a burnt piece of millet bread: “On a hearth was found a piece of millet tourte, burned; the millet seeds could well be made out in the dough.” This has also been described as a sort of “pre-bread”, the millet being incompletely ground. It was similar to clay models of breads which have been found in southwest Europe continually from the Copper (Chalcolithic) Age all the way up to the Middle Ages. Similar models have been found from the Middle Ages from Bessarabia and from near Moscow (the latter showing well-risen breads).

These of course have the advantage of showing what these loaves looked like, even if they are not actually bread themselves.


A group of French scholars of bread and carpology have written a paper (originally included in the Civilisations issue) on “Studies of French archaeological 'bread/galettes” which surveys finds of bread across different eras in France; they are Sylvie Lannoy, Philippe Marinval, Alain Buleon, Hubert Chiron, Philippe Mejanelle, Serge Pin, Joselyne Rech, and Alain Tchapla. The oldest bread they cite (possibly a galette) comes from a Neolithic site at Nice. It is known from compact fragments with little alveolage.

They also cite Aimé Bocquet, who has described a number of bread/galettes from the late Neolithic found in the Isère, made in two slightly different ways. In one, dough two to three centimeters thick was put directly on a hot stone; hot coals may also have been placed on top. The result was roughly circular bread 8-10 cm across, lightly cracked on top. In the other, a disk of dough was shaped in a flat basket, the latter heated on a schist plaque. These breads, thicker than the first and slightly larger, show the marks of the basket.


In a late Neolithic layer in Jersey, a piece of burnt dough a square decimeter in size had been cooked on a large granite stone and was still stuck to it. It is said to have been remarkably thin for the period and was possibly made of wheat and barley. (Lannoy et al)

UPDATE 9/8/2015 - Thank you to Dr. Emilie Sibbesson for this item, from 1999:

Small pieces of burnt bread, discovered in a pit at Yarnton in Oxfordshire, UK, have been dated and found to be 5,500 years old. This makes the Neolithic bread the oldest ever found in Britain...
When Dr Mark Robinson from the Oxford University Museum examined them through a microscope, he could clearly see partially crushed grains of barley.
The material was analysed at the Oxford University Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit and at Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory, New Zealand.
From the amount of radioactive carbon in the sample, it is estimated that the bread was baked between 3,620 - 3,350 BC.
"Oldest bread in Britain", BBC News 


Ancient Egyptian bread was typically made of emmer wheat, though a cake using wheat and barley was found at El Omari. El Omari and El Badari are two of the major sites where bread has been found in Egypt. Brunton and Caton-Thompson, reporting on the Badarians, write of the bread: "the masses are porous, showing that probably the use of yeast was known. The material is not very homogeneous." Samuel notes that in Egyptian bread in general the flour and water appear not to have been evenly mixed. "There would be no point in kneading emmer dough for long, since the purpose of kneading is to develop gluten into an elastic mass which creates a nicely risen, spongy loaf."



Later Egyptian bread was often made in molds, many of which have been found in tombs. Some were found at Tel el Amarna, dated to around 1340 B.C. E., where Samuel "determined that funerary bread was made mostly from emmer wheat, occasionally flavored with figs, dates or coriander." (Highfield)

She also notes that "in several ancient bread samples, heavily channeled [concentric] starch granules make up part of the crumb... [indicating] that malt was part an ingredient of these bread loaves... If malt was used for bread, it may have been necessary or desirable to heat it artificially." This is of interest particularly because of the long association of bread with brewing.

Almost all samples of Egyptian bread dated to between c. 3000 and c. 1085 B.C.E had whole grains on the surface but also "inorganic contaminants" such as sand and other grit.
These articles came from soil itself and from the flint-tooth sickle harvesting tools in eighteenth Dynasty tomb paintings. Wind-blown sand may also have been incorporated during winnowing.
Additionally, another contribution was made by abrasions from the surfaces of querns and saddle-stones... There are also illustrations of stone ovens with bread baked on the outside where the surface of the bread might have been further adulterated by sand and granules of stone.
Leek, who studied these breads from a dental perspective, noted that such particles were also found within the crumb of the bread, probably accounting for the "heavy wear observed on Egyptian teeth." Samuel adds that chunks as large as several millimeters across have been found in these breads.


At a Copper age site near Montpelier, a number of fragments, none larger than 4.5 cm, have been found, from an unknown whole and show traces of barley and bread wheat, but seem more likely to have come from gruel than bread. A larger fragment probably came from a circular object estimated to have the following dimensions: maximum length: 6.7 cm; maximum width: 4.4 cm; maximum thickness: 2.3 cm; thickness of edge: 1.4 cm. It has a smooth side, probably the bottom, and a slightly raised side, producing a lens-like profile. The grain has not so far been identified, but was well ground, the flour being regular; the crumb was closed. Marks on the surface suggest that it was either wrapped in a cloth or shaped in a basket.

The best find in France from the Bronze Age has been lost; it was found in the Var in the Fifties or Sixties. It was roughly circular and between 15 to 20 cm in diameter. The top had been garnished with four cotyledons (like embryonic leaves) from acorns, which had been lightly pressed into the dough. (This is an extremely rare mention of a purely decorative touch.)

A "galette" found in the Jura from the Late Bronze Age was found in the base of a biconic jar and probably resulted from the accidental cooking (during a fire) of barley being prepared for beer. The find is interesting however in highlighting the relation between the two products; had the the disk (about 10 cm across) been made with ground flour insteadly of coarsely broken grains, it might well have been taken for a bread.

Marinval had found some remains of breads/galettes in several regions – the Seine-Maritime, Lot and Charente-Maritime – at the time of the joint article on French bread, but these finds had not yet been analyzed.

Carbonized blocks were found at a site from the end of the Bronze Age at Longueuil-Ste-Marie in the Oise, between 5 and 8 cm at their greatest lengths, with thicknesses of 2.5 and 3 cm, and no particular shape. But they have very large holes in the crumb, as large as 5 mm, indicating:
a good fermentation of the dough... [corresponding] very probably to a risen bread. This results, not only from a relatively well-sifted flour, but also from the use of particular flours.... It can only be a question of cereals with gluten: soft wheat (Triticum aestivum) or spelt (Triticum spelta).
Further, to obtain so well-risen a product, one must particularly well master fermentation techniques... [This] indicates an undeniable savoir-faire.
The fact that a thick product was baked all the way through also suggests that it was cooked in an oven or at least a bell. The blocks also show imprints of carbonized vegetal fragments, possibly added for flavor. Overall, "it would seem that the inhabitants... already showed proof of a surprising mastery in bread-making."


In Romania, a loaf of bread was found at Sucidava-Celei from the start of the Bronze Age, a burnt lump 20 square centimeters wide and 1.5 thick. An examination showed mainly rye in the crumb, but also traces of curly dock and linseed, the latter both believed to be accidentally added. The hole structure of the crumb suggests that it was moderately leavened.



The filling of a silo in the Loiret, from the end of the First Iron Age, included an oval bread/galette, 5-6 cm long and about 3 cm high (no further information).

At Chastel in the Lot-et-Garonne, two small samples were found, 3-3.5 cm at their longest and between 5 and 7 mm thick. The crumb shows no alveolage at all, both being dense and compact, made of coarsely ground grain. One sample seems to have been folded over on itself. The grains tentatively can be identified as wheat, barley, or, more surprisingly for this era, rye.


Währen cites, as the "the oldest bread having a shape", a roughly triangular bread, indented at the broad end, from 900-600 B.C.E., found in Kreis de Stade in Germany. A small metal offering was found in the bread whose shape, he says, "recalls the attribute of the Indo-European god of lightning" (meaning Thor and his hammer?).

Another researcher, Metzler, found a galette from around 713 B.C.E. in a wood going through the Swamp of Ipweg, near Kreis de Wesermarch. Währen:
According to the first hypothesis, this was an oval bread cut with a kind of knife-saw. In examining this object, we arrived at the conclusion that the dough necessary for cooking a round galette 15 cm in diameter was cut a little above the half, that the cuts had been pressed with a flat piece of wood and it was only then that at least a half loaf was baked.
However, this bread was primarily made up of beeswax, with only traces of spelt, barley and millet, apparently being "a substitute bread, intended to replace the real bread" and intended as an offering. "This must be, in Europe, the most ancient offering in the form of bread, whose intent was profane." Yet it was baked (apparently): "As the divided part was not too strongly pressed, ....[it] formed a finer crust and became agreeably crusty."

Währen cites two breads from Celtic tombs. One from around 125 B.C.E., found at Kreis de Bernkastel-Wittlich, is in the shape of a ring and looks like a crude doughnut. This is "the only pre and protohistoric example discovered in Europe so far." The other, from around 150-125 B.C.E., from the same area, is described as being of a "ball shape" but looks somewhat more elongated.


The breads found at Glastonbury are some of the most famous of the archaeological breads:
Some very hard rock buns were found at Glastonbury Lake Village in Somerset, England dating from the first century B.C. This unleavened bread contained hulled barley, wheat, wild oat, chess and orache. ,,,,Similarly, the well preserved Iron age bog burial of Lindow man’ from Cheshire, England produced the remains of an unleavened ‘bannock’... made of wheat and barley when his stomach contents were examined.


With the Romans, documentary accounts of bread begin to be common, including that made by the Romans living in Gaul; that is, the Gallo-Romans. But this is also a rich period for bread in archeology.


Vesuvius created a “snapshot” of Rome itself in 79 C. E. when it buried Pompeii and Herculaneum. Numerous works discuss the bakeries and breads found in these cities. Images of one from Pompeii is especially common: a low, slightly risen disk about eight inches across and roughly an inch and a half thick, divided into eight even sections, one of which bears the baker's rectangular stamp. The loaf, completely carbonized by the eruption, looks as if it were made of stone. In 1771 Winckelmann mentioned somewhat different loaves from Herculaneum, but cut in a similar way:
There are two whole loaves to be seen, both of the same form and size, that is, a palm and two inches in diameter, and five inches in thickness. Both have eight dents in the upper crust; that is to say, they were first divided by cross lines into four parts, and then subdivided into eight, by four other cross lines. There appears a division of the same kind on two loaves, in one of the pictures found at Herculaneum. 
In 1853, Clarke published this description of some from Pompeii:
Their loaves appear to have been very often baked in moulds, several of which have been found: these may possibly be artoptae, and the loaves thus baked artopticii. Several of these loaves have been found entire. They are flat, and about eight inches in diameter. One in the Neapolitan Museum has a stamp on the top:—
This has been interpreted to mean that cicer (vetch) was mixed with the flour. 
One of the striking notes, in fact, about bread in Pompeii is the likelihood that cicer – chick pea – flour was used for some breads. Monnier mentions it as well in this description from 1886:
The very loaves have survived. In the bakery of which I speak several were found with the stamps upon them, siligjo grani (wheat flour), or e cicera (of bean flour) — a wise precaution against the bad faith of the dealers. Still more recently, in the latest excavations, Signor Fiorelli came across an oven so hermetically sealed that there was not a particle of ashes in it, and there were eighty-one loaves, a little sad, to be sure, but whole, hard, and black, found in the order in which they had been placed on the 23d of November, 79.....
Most of the loaves weigh about a pound; the heaviest twelve hundred and four grains. They are round, depressed in the centre, raised on the edges, and divided into eight lobes. Loaves are still made in Sicily exactly like them.
If sand was not found in this bread, powdered stone sometimes was, from the mills used. (But this was not particular to Rome; later stone mills would also leave traces in the flour).

At Herculaneum, one bread bore a stamp stating that it was "made by Celer, the slave of Quintus Granius Verus". There was nothing unusual about bread being made by slaves, but it is curious that the work of this one was individually marked. Since it seems unlikely there was any desire to promote his reputation, this was probably a quality control measure.


Währen describes two baked items found in a second century cremation tomb at Saffig, in Kreis de Main-Koblenz. One is a bread (found in fragments) with a hollow filling the center which might have been used for food offerings. (As sketched, it resembles a small pizza with a thick outer crust.) The other is described as a fruit tartlet, though Währen cites no traces of any fruit. It is 9-10 cm in diameter, 2-3 cm high, with a thickness varying from 3.3 to 10.9 mm. (The surviving piece is now open in the middle.)

Gallo-Roman France
The Gallo-Roman period is the best documented thanks to discoveries made in the cremation tombs of the Principate. As it happens, it was common to depose breads on funerary piles in Italy... as in Gaul.... We have reviewed eight Gallo-Roman necropoles in which were noted remains of breads/galettes.
(Lannoy, et al)
In the Aveyron, at la Vayssière, one tomb held a fairly large fragment of a nearly circular galette, about 9 cm across. It was made of fine flour (grain unknown), but did not appear to have been leavened and had a regular but close crumb, with a smooth, generally regular crust. The dough had been folded in on itself. (The crematory remains included (per Marinval) mainly bread wheat, but also traces of barley and broad bean, as well as a walnut, apples and hazelnuts; it is not clear however if these relate to the bread, beyond perhaps the likelihood that it was made with bread wheat.)

At Vallades, in the Drome, a small loaf was found almost intact (exploded but readily reassembled). Slightly oval (9.1 by 8.3 cm), with a maximum thickness of 4.5 cm., it was flat on the bottom and slightly raised on top. The fact that the sides were practically vertical suggests it had been made in a mold. "The crust is smooth and regular. The flour is fine.... The crumb is regular with openings of a moderate size; 1.9 mm."

Remnants of galettes were also found near a plate and low bowl or cup and a pitcher, and had probably been burned at the same time as the deceased. There are indications these were made with sarrasin wheat which, if it was known in Brittany and Belgium since the Iron Age, has otherwise not been found in this time in the south; nor is it definitely identified here.

A particularly rich find comes from a large household in Amiens dating from the second century (excavated by T. Ben Redjeb), at a site referred to as the "Jacobins". Ten breads, as well as a broken mill and a domestic oven, have been found at the same site.

Three of the breads have been studied. Two are circular, about 10 cm across and 5 cm thick. The crust is clearly different from the crumb, which shows a very fine alveolage, as regular as modern commercial loaves; today the French call this pattern "bee's nest"; that is, honeycomb. These also bear the marks of fingers and palms, though how is uncertain.

The third is more irregular in form, about 12 cm across and 6-7 cm thick at its thickest. Its alveolage is exceptionally large, reaching diameters of 10-13 mm. Such an aerated crumb is still unusual today and can only be obtained with a super-hydrated dough. It probably also was allowed to rise longer than the other two samples. It was probably made from well-sifted bread wheat or spelt, but analysis also shows the (again early) presence of rye. Further the loaf bears the clear mark of a cloth, possibly placed on it as it rose.

A bread found at Cabasse, in the Var, is both remarkably well-preserved and remarkably sophisticated compared to other breads found in tombs. Bérard's report on the excavation notes it as follows: "Small bread (0 m. 140 x 0 m. 110. Thick. 0 m. 032 : upper part with two deep grooves: entirely calcified.)" It is a very modern looking bread, in American terms about 5.5 inches by 4.3 inches across, an inch and a quarter thick, with two slashes on the surface roughly dividing it into thirds. These look very much like the kind of slashes - grignes - seen on many French breads today; these are decorative, but also allow gas to escape, preventing the bread from bursting. Neither Lannoy et al nor Bérardescribe it further, but the regularity and the distinctive form of the bread suggest it was made by a professional baker (whether in a city or in a household). Grignes became popular in France in the nineteenth century as yeast was used more often, resulting in a stronger fermentation. It is tempting (if entirely unproven) to think this loaf then was leavened with yeast (which Pliny documented among the Gauls) rather than sourdough.



In Sweden, “pre-history” refers to a period corresponding to the historical – that is,  Medieval – period elsewhere. Hansson: “The majority of surviving Swedish prehistoric bread can be dated to the later part of the Early Medieval Period (which in Sweden incorporates the Migration Period (400 -550 AD), the Vendel Period (550 -800 AD) and the Viking Age (800 -1050 AD).”

Loaves from these periods were made not only from cereals, but, microscopic analysis shows, flour too from peas, vetches, flax, gold of pleasure and fieldweeds. The flour was typically finely sieved and the bread unleavened. Traces of Scots pine found in bread were once thought to have been used in the bread itself, but now appear to have resulted from contamination, either during baking or during the cremation.

Hansson for the most part describes these breads collectively, not individually as do certain other authors.

The first pre-historic Swedish breads to be analyzed were those found at the start of the twentieth century in cremation graves at Ljunga and at a fortified farm at Boberget (both in Östergötland). Eastern central Sweden has been rich in finds, while one at Västbyn (in Jämtland) is the northernmost found. (It has been suggested that blood was used in the latter, along with hulled barley.)

Two sites were on islands in Lake Mälaren, once a gulf of the Baltic Sea. One was Helgö, the other Birka (both near Stockholm). Loaves from the migration-viking period at Helgö “were found in a longhouse and in a sunken-floor hut. This bread had a somewhat older dating than the loaves from the prototown of Birka.” Those at the latter were found in cremation graves dated c. 750-975 C.E. “Here c. 1000 graves were excavated during the end of the 19th century. Of these, c. 500 proved to hold cremation burials, and c. 10 % of the cremation graves contained bread loaves.” More breads were found on the same island (Björkö) in graves which probably belonged to independent farmers in the same period.
In Birka, in those cases where it was possible to make a secure classification based on the morphology, we observed a predominance of circular bread with a diameter of less than 5 cm and a thickness of c. 0,5 cm (25 cases in total). With regard to such small dimensions perhaps the term « bun » or « miniature bread » is more accurate than merely « bread ». There are however also other forms, for instance, an oval shape, an indented « clover-leaf » shape, and one small curved piece of bread which was earlier interpreted as a figure -of -eight, but now seems more possibly ring-formed. Rare examples occur of larger loaves, up to a diameter of 17-18 cm. A loaf from the fortified farm of Boberget was semi-spherical, the only early medieval Swedish loaf with this form.
Many of the grave-breads at Birka were provided with iron strings for hanging them (which suggests that they had holes in them, like one of the most popular forms of modern Swedish flat bread). Since other materials might have been used and metal was then expensive in Nordic countries, Hansson sees in this fact an emphasis of bread's symbolic value.
Furthermore, loaves were often placed within the grave urn or just beside it, the most important location in the grave. Bread deposits often coincide in the Birka graves with Thor´s hammer rings also made of iron, sometimes with metal pendants. These are usually associated with ideas of fertility and resurrection. Prehistoric bread probably had a similar symbolic function following a very widely established tradition
UPDATE 11/28/2015: In a separate paper, Hansson gives more details on the grains used. "In Swedish prehistoric bread, barley (Hordeum sp.) was the most common cereal, followed by oats (Avena sp.)" A small percentage of "speltoid wheats, einkorn, emmer wheat and spelt wheat" was also used.


Ironically, the later the date, the less bread is found in archeology (how much bread have you kept from your own past?). Lannoy et al cite a Medieval lakeside site in the Isère which included remnants of breads/galettes which, however, have never been described. Währen mentions a kind of substitute bread from the thirteenth century in central Europe, made as a fine pastry, but gives no further details.

Otherwise, the latest find of this sort may be that said to come from “the medieval village of Dolhesti” in Romania, but dated to the seventeenth century; it is round and flattened at the center, which shows fingerprints. Though it has a rather porous crumb, it resembles a type of bread known from Romanian period tapestries and named lipie, which typically is not very leavened.

UPDATE 1-18-14 Dr. Debby Banham (Cambridge) notes a find of eleventh century Anglo-Saxon breads: 
"most Anglo-Saxon bread was undoubtedly baked on the hearthstones. In either case, it was made in small round loaves, whether of wheat or barley meal... Such loaves have recently been found in a house destroyed by fire in the eleventh century at Ipswitch (Keith Wade, pers. comm.)"


Breads are only found fitfully in archeology, yet this (certainly incomplete) inventory shows what varied information and evidence they can provide. Though leavening and fine grinding of flour were more common in later centuries, both are found in the earliest bread cited here. (Archaeologists rarely distinguish between leavening by sour dough and leavening by yeast, unfortunately.) Bread was cooked under or on stones and/or under coals for some time before anything like an oven appeared. Several cultures used molds to shape but also sometimes to bake the bread.

Already too, in periods which precede the written record, some sought refinement in baked goods, even using different techniques for different results. One result, early on, was some form of pastry, however primitive. Wheat was used in prehistoric times, but barley and millet were once more common; a wide range of other materials too have been used for bread. Far more often than not, breads were round, if sometimes imperfectly so. Long breads existed – as other evidence shows – but not commonly enough to have survived thus far. Otherwise, an eccentric variety of shapes has been found from over the centuries.


If you are interested in bread history, you might enjoy a new translation of Le Grand d'Aussy's classic chapters on bread, as well as those on pastry and sweets:

Währen,Max, “Pain, pâtisserie et religion en Europe Pré- et Protohistorique”,Civilisations,No 49 2002

NOTE: Not included in above on-line edition; free access available through Jstor

Smith, Heather, "Celtic and Romano British Foods from the Isles - a General Approach: Agriculture in the Iron Age”

Clarke, George. Pompeii, its destruction and re-discovery 1853

Monnier,Marc. The Wonders of Pompeii 1886

Beard,Mary. Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town 2010

Winckelman,Johann Joachim. Critical Account of the Situation and Destruction by the First Eruptions of Mount Vesuvius of Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Stabia 1771

Debby Banham, Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon England 2004

Hansson, Anne-Marie, "Bread in Birka and on Bjorko", Laborative Arkeologi  1996

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