Scientific analysis of some enigmatic burnt features found in several Anglo-Saxon settlements across the east of England has provided new insight into early medieval cooking practices.
Recent work by Dr Julie Dunne from the University of Bristol has led to the successful identification of lipids – molecules which are the building blocks of fats, oils, waxes, and resins – in the cracks of heat-altered flint from Bronze Age burnt mounds. Noting her success, a team from Cotswold Archaeology thought that she could apply this new technique to solve the mystery of the numerous rectangular pits, filled with burnt flint and charcoal, that are found across eastern England and appear to date from the Anglo-Saxon period. They range in size from 1.5m-2.5m by 0.7m-1.5m, and few finds have been found within them, leaving much speculation as to their purpose.
While the pits have been found in several different sites, they are still rare enough that they probably do not represent everyday activity. Although usually little is left behind, one example from Eye in Suffolk provided evidence to suggest that the flints may have been placed on a wooden lattice over a fire in the base of the pit. The team thinks that it may have been constructed in such a way so that the flints would collapse into the pit and smother the fire, potentially leaving a bed of ‘hot rocks’.
To find out what was being done in these pits, samples of flint were taken from two Anglo-Saxon settlements: one in Eye and another in Kentford, also in Suffolk. Three of the pits from Eye and one from Kentford yielded results, with the lipid profiles indicating the presence of two fatty acids: palmitic (C16) and stearic (C18), typical of a degraded animal fat. Specifically, the results appear to fit the profiles of ruminants (probably cattle, sheep, or goats) and, notably, no other types of fat, such as pig or horse, were found.
Based on these results, it is probable that large joints or even whole animals may have been roasted in these pits, perhaps representing occasional cooking events or even special feasting.