Cooking a pig, Bronze Age Style! Part 2: A Photo Essay

Leading on from Cooking a pig, Bronze Age Style Part 1, which set out the theory of cooking a pit using Bronze Age technology, Rubicon’s intrepid MD Colm Moloney undertook Part 2 of the experiment; all that was needed was a shoulder of a lamb, a hole in his garden, and enforced child labour. He describes the results in this photo essay…

I spent last Saturday in my garden doing some experimental archaeology in order to get some idea of the types of heat generated and consequently the length of time required to cook a joint of meat. This varied slightly from the theory and I cheated by using tinfoil to wrap the meat (as I still haven’t decided what material to wrap the meat in). We used the front quarter of a lamb instead of pork as this is less likely to end in a case of food poisoning. The meat was donated by Toby and Penny Allen and the ‘pit team’ comprised myself, Louise Baker and Reuben Moloney.

Stage 1: Dig a pit (use of child labour optional) large enough to take your joint and a large quantity of charcoal and stone.
Stage 2: Light a fire in the pit. I used a pile of wood and added a bag of charcoal.
Stage 3: Once the flames have died down, add a pile of stone to the charcoal. I used sandstone as there was some lying around in the garden. I also had a pile of limestone but was concerned that this may become toxic when heated- i.e. quicklime etc.
Stage 4: Prepare the meat. We scored the fat and rubbed in butter, salt and garlic and whatever herbs were growing in the garden.
Stage 5: Wrap the meat. I used tinfoil as the jury is still out on what exactly this may have been. The Maori of New Zealand use banana leaves for instance. I reckon grass, reeds, bark or seaweed would be appropriate for our context but thats the next experiment. We are leaning towards seaweed as we live near the coast.
Stage 6: Place the meat into the hot coals. I made a circle of large stones with charcoal inside. I placed the meat within the stones and then piled charcoal over the top.
Stage 7: Backfill. I placed a sheet of damp cardboard over the meat to give me a level to shovel back down to when the meat is ready to be removed. The cardboard won't burn as there is no oxygen in the pit after backfilling- a piece of wood will also work. Gently backfill the fire and meat with soil. I covered the whole lot with about 3 inches of soil.
Stage 8: Build a surface fire. Build another fire over the backfilled roasting pit and keep at a moderate size for about four hours. We added vegetables to this fire a half an hour before digging up the meat.
Stage 9: Time Check!
Stage 10: Remove the meat. Carefully dig down to the cardboard. Clear around the sides of the meat taking care not to pierce the wrapping- we managed to keep the juices to make gravy! Carefully lift the meat (I used a long-handled shovel for this) and leave to rest for 10 minutes before carefully unwrapping.
Stage 11: The Moment of Truth! We measured the heat of the base of the pit with a meat thermometer immediately on re-excavation. It registered a temperature of 170 degrees centigrade which is the exact temperature required for roasting a joint of lamb. We also measured the temperature of the meat which was at 190 degrees centigrade, indicating it was slightly over-cooked.
Stage 12: Time Check! In future for a similar sized joint we should either reduce the time by half an hour or reduce the intensity of the surface fire.
Stage 13: Feasting! The meat was very succulent and fell off the bones.
Stage 15: The remnants. Judging from this photo I think you can see that overall the experiment was a great success! Our next attempt will be a leg of pork which we intend to wrap with seaweed. Watch this space!

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Felicity Hayes-McCoy

    Brilliant stuff! And it looks delicious. Ever tried the method used by Fionn and the Fianna when out hunting.? Apparently you kill the deer, skin him and hang up the skin like a bag, suspended from a tripod of spears. Then you heat stones in your campfire as you sit round telling stories about your magic thumb, or your battle with the King of The World on Ventry Strand. Meanwhile, you keep throwing the hot stones into the skin bag, which you’ve filled with water. And, eventually, the water boils. Then you boil up handy collops of meat, and, presumably, plenty of them; because by this stage you’re hungry as hunters.

    Back in the feasting hall, water would be boiled in huge bronze, or wooden, cauldrons. In his book, In Ireland Long Ago, Kevin Danaher, the wonderful Irish folklorist, says the Brehon Laws, which go into great detail about many everyday things, lay down very clearly that the cook’s not responsible for splashing hot broth on people round the fire – as long as he gives warning in a loud voice, saying ‘Look out! Here goes the fork into the cauldron!’

    1. Damian Shiels

      Hi Felicity,

      We haven’t tried that one out yet but it sounds like fun! Especially the feasting hall bit… :-)!

  2. Stuart Elder

    Several years ago, I excavated a burnt mound site with some deeper pit features I felt represented ‘ground ovens’, as used by the indigenous peoples of Polynesia and Australasia. Just a theory, of course, as I couldn’t prove it at the time, and naturally, my theory was looked upon with some raised eyebrows.,16705,en.pdf

    So thanks guys, for proving that the cooking pit is both feasible and viable. I feel somewhat vindicated!

    1. Damian Shiels

      No problem Stuart, good to see we are on the same page!

  3. If that was lumber you used for your fuel I would be much worried about the possible chemicals used to treat it than any possible toxicity from limestone. My crew and I cook directly on stones all the time when we are on remote area projects. Just make sure the stones are dry and the pourous the better. Any wet and pourous stone (such as limestone) can become super-heated and explode when the water in the stone vaporizes to explosive steam. We do that for fun as well when not cooking. Igneous stones such as granite or hearth stones from previous fires that are already sufficiently dried and cleaned from firing make good cooking stones. Also be careful of what you wrap the meat in as many plants can leave nasty tasting flavors on the meat. Usually edible plants are going to be your best bet and soaking the plants in water will help steam your food and keep them from burning and smoking up the flavor. Bon appetit.

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