Hunting for molecules in feeding vessels

Small vessels with spouts, from which liquid can be poured, are sometimes found in Bronze and Iron Age graves and settlements. They come in many sizes, shapes and decorations; although they generally fit the period-specific style, each piece is unique. Many of them are stray finds, but some were found in context with children’s graves, which led to the idea that they may have been used as feeding vessels for babies and small children. The fact that they are also found in adult’s graves, however, suggests other uses, such as libation – the act of pouring a liquid as a sacrifice to a deity.

Blog feeding vessels

Feeding vessels, from Vienna, Oberleis, Vösendorf and Statzendorf, c. 1200-600 BC (photos: KRS)

How can we test what the feeding vessels actually contained? Experimental work has confirmed that it is possible to feed small children with liquid from feeding vessels. The diameter of the hole through which the liquid is poured is quite variable, but in some cases, only a few millimetres wide – there is no chance that porridge or gruel fits through. It has to be liquid. If it was milk, there is a small chance that organic molecules from the animal lipids may be preserved in the ceramic matrix. We went hunting for these molecules.

First, however, we needed to secure some samples, which was more difficult than expected. The vessels are small and delicate, and especially complete ones can usually not be destroyed. Other vessels have been stored in museums for decades, and there is no information available if and how they were treated with chemicals. With help from Anton and Daniela Kern from the Natural History Museum in Vienna and a few other colleagues, however, we cut small pieces from eight feeding vessels dated to the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age Austria (c. 1200 to 600 BC). Carefully wrapped and packaged they accompanied us to Bristol.

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Anton and Daniela Kern discussing with the restaurator Gergana Almstädter from the Natural History Museum in Vienna how best to take samples of feeding vessels (photo: KRS)

Researchers from the Chemistry Department of the University of Bristol have come up with a sophisticated method to analyse ancient molecules extracted from foodstuffs absorbed into archaeological pottery (Evershed, 2008a and b, Dunne 2017). After a sample of a potsherd is cleaned and finely ground up, a chemical extraction takes place. Chromatographic techniques, mass spectronomy and isotope mass spectronomy are applied to characterise the compounds. Using these techniques, it is possible to differentiate dairy fats from fats that come from the animal carcass, e.g. when cooking a soup from bones and meat. Organic residue analysis can identify the difference between the processing of ruminant (cattle sheep and goat) carcass products and non-ruminant (pig). Dairy products from ruminants, i.e. milk, can also be separated isotopically although, to date, we have no information on human breast milk.

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Julie Dunne explaining isotope mass spectronomy at Bristol (photo: KRS)

We are looking forward to the results. Perhaps some hidden molecules will be able to tell us more about the function of feeding vessels.


Dunne, J. 2017. Organic Residue Analysis and Archaeology. Guidance for Good Practice. Bristol: Historic England.

 Eibner, C. 1973. Die urnenfelderzeitlichen Sauggefäße. Ein Beitrag zur morphologischen und ergologischen Umschreibung. Praehistorische Zeitschrift (48): 144-199.

Evershed, R. P. 2008a. Experimental approaches to the interpretation of absorbed organic residues in archaeological ceramics. World Archaeology 40(1): 26-47.

Evershed, R. P. 2008b. Organic residue analysis in archaeology: the archaeological biomarker revolution Archaeometry 50(6): 895-924.

Rebay, K. C. 2006. Das hallstattzeitliche Gräberfeld von Statzendorf, Niederösterreich. Universitätsforschungen zur Prähistorischen Archäologie 135. Bonn: Habelt.

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A new addition to our research team

The ‘motherhood in prehistory’ research team at the OREA Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences welcomes a new team member: PhD student Lukas Waltenberger. Lukas in an energetic young anthropologist who will develop his PhD project on physical changes in the human pelvis through childbirth within the next three years.


Lukas Waltenberger

Already in his youth, Lukas wanted to become a scientist and spent his summers working in a  biochemical lab. Before embarking on studying biology at the University of Vienna, he spent some months at Leeds University (UK) as a visiting research assistant, where he improved protocols for nuclei extraction out of plant cells. In 2010, he started to study Biology at the University of Vienna, and during that time his research interests changed from Biochemistry to Anthropology. In his bachelor’s thesis, he analysed early medieval skeletons and gained first experiences in geomorphometrics.

Lukas moved to the UK to study Forensic Osteology at Bournemouth University for his MA and gained experience in mass grave excavation, plane crash incidents and skeletal analysis. In his master dissertation, supervised by Prof. Holger Schutkwoski, he analysed heat alteration of cut marks and developed an experimental strategy using pig bones. He applied cutting-edge 3D-methods, such as micro-CT and laser scanning microscopy, to his research questions. He presented his research results at he European Researcher’s Night and in a Science Slam – a competition to present research in front of a non-scientific crowd. His contribution “Sherlock Bones – Forensic BBQ” was broadcast on Austrian television.

In spring and summer 2016 he won an internship at the Commission of Missing Persons in Cyprus and extended his experience in forensic analyses and war victim identification. He helped to identify war victims from the Cyprus Civil War in the 1970s. Skeletal remains predominantly found in mass graves were analysed for their biological profiles, cause of death, facial reconstructions and DNA fingerprint. Recently he received the ATHEN-grant of the Austrian Academy of Sciences to work in the Phaleron-project, led by Prof. Jane Buikstra, in Athens.

Since March 2017, he studies Prehistory and Historical Archaeology in addition to Anthropology at the University of Vienna. The combination of archaeology and anthropology makes him a great addition to our team. We are looking forward to working with him in many joint science adventures!

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Photoshop and Klimt, or retouching older women and breasts out of history

Klimt’s iconic painting ‘Three ages of woman’ beautifully empresses both the beauty and horror of motherhood, which is why it serves a project vignette. It was painted in 1905 and bought by the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome in 1911. The Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali kindly permitted us to use it.


It is a widely known and frequently reproduced image. However, not all parts of it appeal: many reproductions crop the image to show only the mother holding the child. My lovely colleague Doris gave me a porcelain mug for my birthday with this image on it. The central motif features at the front, back and inside. The representation of old age, however, has been entirely deleted. Instead, the orange dot-and-circle pattern has been expanded to cover the space.

The latest alteration of the image I came across covers the naked breast of the woman with a second child. Klimt’s woman suddenly turned into a mother of twins.

Klimt with twinsThe arts shall be free, I suppose, but I am sure poor Gustav would spin in his grave if he knew. The original message of the painting is entirely lost, and the ‘new and improved’ versions are symptomatic for a broader tendency to retouch older women out of media, politics and research.

I have sadly not found the origin of the ‘mother of twins’ image, but I suspect it is a prudish attempt to cover the woman’s naked breast. After reading this rant, have some fun: you can turn your own image ‘klimtesque’ on the Deepart website.

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Why we don’t make cheese from mummy’s breast-milk

Cheese-making is a prehistoric craft. Cheese is usually made from animal milk, from cows, goats or sheep. Archaeological evidence suggests that milk production is likely to be as old as the domestication of sheep. Secure evidence in the form of milk fat residues in strainers and pots dates as early as 5500 BC in Poland (Salque et al. 2013). Preserved cheese from the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang , China, dates to 1615 BC. Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, as well as people of the European Iron Age produced cheese. Swiss cheese flavours may go back to the first Millennium BC.

Making cheese preserves a valuable foodstuff for a longer time period. So is it at all possible that prehistoric people made cheese from human breast-milk?

CheeseTo make hard cheese, milk is usually acidified and adding rennet causes coagulation, separating solid curds for and liquid whey. The solids are separated and pressed into final form. Rennet is found in the stomachs of young animals that still digest milk as their primary food source. Rennet used for modern cheese making is a by-product of slaughtering veal and lamb. In prehistory, its function was likely discovered by chance when milk was stored in animal stomachs.

The traditional way of making rennet is slicing dried and cleaned stomachs of young animals and putting them in water or whey, together with some vinegar or wine, for a few days. The filtered solution can be used to coagulate milk. A little goes a long way with this process – 1 g of this solution can coagulate 2 to 4 l of milk.

What I did not know before developing an unhealthy level of theoretical interest in cheese-making is that the enzymes found in the animal stomachs are specific to the species. To make cheese, you have to add rennet from the stomach lining of the animal you are making the cheese from: to make cheese from cow’s milk, use rennet from calves, to make sheep cheese, from lambs. To make cheese from human breast-milk, you would need the stomach lining of…. you get it. Nobody would do this (but some have thought about it).

Thank goodness, there are alternatives to rennet today. The key component of rennet is the enzyme chymosin, which may be obtained from genetically modified bacteria, fungi or yeasts by fermentation. Yay for genetic engineering! To the best of my knowledge, nobody has engineered a suitable agent for human breast-milk yet.

Cream cheeses and other soft cheese alternatives are made by coagulating milk with acid. So if you are really desperate, try this method. Alternatively, mix human milk with cow’s milk, like in this recipe from New York chef Daniel Angerer.


Salque, M., P. I. Bogucki, J. Pyzel, I. Sobkowiak-Tabaka, R. Grygiel, M. Szmyt, and R. P. Evershed. 2013. Earliest evidence for cheese making in the sixth millennium bc in northern Europe. Nature 493(7433): 522-525.


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The word’s first incubators: not for the faint-hearted

Here is an interesting story I came across recently – it may or may not have a grain of truth in it. I have not been able to substantiate the legend with further historical sources, but it is too good not to share.

Allegedly, when emperor Leopold I was born as a premature baby in 1640 in Vienna, it was almost certain he would die. There were no incubators at the time. The solution was to slaughter pigs, disembowel them and place the tiny baby Leopold in the animal carcass. To keep him warm, a fresh pig had to be slaughtered every 15 minutes. This procedure was continued for weeks, and most of the many pigs slaughtered during this time came from north of the Danube.

Leopold I (1640-1705)

Leopold I (1640-1705)

Leopold survived and, out of gratitude, he granted the farmers the right to bring their produce into Vienna without paying a toll on the bridge (Realis 1848: 140). The village, previously named Eipeldau, was renamed Leopoldau and is today a part of Vienna’s Floridsdorf district.

The story raises a number of questions – why was Leopold not kept warm simply by placing him on the mother’s (or the wet nurse’s) chest? Was putting babies in animal carcasses a practice actually ever done in the history of childrearing? What do you think – fact or fiction? If you have heard of similar practices, please let me know.

I have heard stories of horse carcasses used to keep people from freezing to death, for instance in Napoleon’s or Hitler’s Russian campaigns. The theme was taken up in various films such as Star Wars. Perhaps most recently, Leonardo DiCaprio slept in an animal carcass in ‘The Revenant’ (2015).

Modern incubators for the neonatal care of premature babies started to be developed around the middle of the 19th century in various places in Europe; Alexandre Lion’s incubator, patented in 1889, achieved an infant survival rate of 72%. Not too bad for the time.


Schwein gehabt! Wie Leopoldau zu seinem Namen kam … Die Floridsdorfer Zeitung

Realis. 1848. Curiositäten- und Memorabilien Lexicon von Wien. Wien: Anton Köhler.

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What did prehistoric people know about conception?

Even today, stories of women who gave birth without knowing they were pregnant make the news occasionally. Although I do not normally follow such sensationalist news, they do not cease to fascinate me. Yes, it is possible, despite the tell-tale signs, to completely block out a pregnancy. This happens primarily to women who believed they could not conceive, to victims of abuse, or to women who did not even consider raising a child at this point in their lives.

The cause-effect relationship between sex, pregnancy and birth is so natural to most of us today that we sometimes forget this knowledge is not universal. Nine months is a long time between cause and effect, and especially the first four months, a pregnancy is far from obvious to outsiders, if not to the mother. There are traditional societies, especially hunter-gatherers that do not breed livestock, which do not connect sex and pregnancy/birth at all. It is knowledge that has to be taught and learned as children grow up and start their own sexual experiences.

Perhaps from the time people began to domesticate animals, it became clear that letting animals mate may result in offspring. If this knowledge was extrapolated to humans, and indeed, how common it was, is not clear. It may have been restricted to certain age and gender groups. Interestingly, young girls – the ones to whom it matters most – are kept in the dark most often. Until recently in the Western World, newly-wed women did not know much about what would happen to them in the wedding night, and many could not explain ‘where babies came from’.

The conception of new life remains miraculous to this day. In my view, a detailed scientific and medical knowledge about conception – how chromosomes combine, how DNA of two people merge, how embryos develop – makes the miracle of life even more awesome. But just imagine not knowing any of this. Being a first-time mother in a prehistoric society must have been weird and scary. With any luck, you may have seen others pregnant and giving birth successfully, whilst your belly expands. Perhaps in your small-scale society, this has not happened for several years and you do not know what is growing inside you.


Conceptus, by Anna Artaker

Anna Artaker’s work ‘Conceptus’ beautifully illustrates these thoughts. It juxtaposes the Venus from Willendorf, a 29.500 year-old stone figurine found in Willendorf in the Wachau (Austria), with a wax figure of a four months old foetus. They are both about the same size and show other similarities, too, such as the way the hands are held against the upper body. The objects themselves remain hidden – only their shadows are put side by side.

The analogy to the Rorschach test is deliberate. Viewers have to come close to the case to discover what is in them. In this way, the work focusses on people’s quest for understanding their own origin.  For Anna Artaker, ‘conceptus’ shows the miracle of life – once in the form of an object frequently interpreted as a fertility goddess, once in the form of the modern medical understanding of how life develops in the uterus.


Conceptus, by Anna Artaker

Anna Artaker chose the name ‘Conceptus’ for the work, as in its Latin form, the word refers to both the act of conception and its consequence, the embryo/foetus. It further encompasses the meaning of thought and idea (from which the term concept is derived).

The artwork was put on display in a high-security case at the site of Willendorf in Lower Austria, at the place the Venus was found in 1908. The Venus from Willendorf is normally on display in the Natural History Museum in Vienna. For the 100-year anniversary of its discovery, it was displayed at the location it was found. The Venus has since returned to Vienna and is on display. So next time you visit Vienna, make sure to pay her a visit. Since the on-site exhibition, the case remained in place and a different artist fills it with a unique installation each year.


Conceptus, by Anna Artaker

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Cold Case Schleinbach: why it makes sense to preserve skeletons in situ

We have recently been re-examining an interesting early Bronze Age site called Schleinbach in Lower Austria. In the manner typical of the Únětice Culture, people were buried in a small cemetery next to a settlement, and some bodies were found in former storage pits or other abandoned settlement features. The site was located on the premises of a brick factory. Finds were first recognised in 1911, and Karl Kriegler excavated the first graves and pits in 1916. Excavations continued in a more or less systematic manner into the 1940s.

Pit 60 was documented in 1931 and is particularly noteworthy: it comprises the bodies of an adult male and three children. The youngest child was placed on the right side, head towards the south-east; one of the older children was placed on the back, head in east, with feet tilted to the left side, and one child was placed on the left side with the head in the north-east. The last of the individuals, the adult male, was found in supine position on top of them all. His body was north-west oriented, with his head looking east; his upper arms lay next to the body, but the elbows were bent and the hands were found next to the shoulders; the right hand was found with the palm up, the left hand was turned sideways. His legs were not found parallel, but slightly open (the feet had been cut off before the recovery).


Schleinbach, Pit LX: adult man and three children (Weninger 1954: 3)

The peculiar body position of the male individual (soon dubbed ‘the priest’) and the combination with the children’s bodies led the excavator to preserve the findings in context. It was an enormous undertaking to fix the skeletal remains in the surrounding soil and transport the whole block to the Lower Austrian Museum (at that time located in Herrengasse 9, Vienna), where the burial was stabilised with plaster and put on display. The complex remained on display in several locations, before it found a temporary home in the Lower Austrian museum storage facilities in an old tobacco factory in Hainburg.

The first anthropological analysis, conducted in the 1950s, estimated the age of the children as 4-5, 10 and 12, and suggested a male sex for all individuals (Weninger 1954); this analysis was based on morphological observations. For the most part, Josef Weninger was not able to take the bones out of the block for measurements.

When we recently arrived at Hainburg for the re-examination of the skeletons and to take some DNA samples, we found the block in a sorry state. It had been broken in several segments and many bones were loose. Nevertheless, the preservation of skeletons in situ enabled some interesting observations – insights into decomposition events that would not have been apparent had the skeletons been excavated and stored in a box.


Doris Pany-Kucera and Michaela Spannagl-Steiner examining fragments of the block

In fact, ‘archaeothanatology’ or ‘l’anthropologie de terrain’ (Duday 2006, 2009) advocates systematic recording and observation of joint articulations, to infer the environment in which the body decomposed. This way, we can learn whether the body had been decomposing in an empty space, a void or a coffin; for example, whether it was wrapped and confined, or whether the grave had been filled by soil immediately. Joints disarticulate in a specific order during decomposition and gravity also plays its part. Archaeothanatology also aids in deciding if bodies had been disturbed, manipulate or reorganized after the initial deposition.

When we saw the skeleton, the ribs were in disarray – this, however, was a result of transporting and handling the block when the bones were no longer fixed properly. Originally, the rib cage had been well preserved. Josef Weninger remarked on this unusual finding, that the excavator Karl Kriegler wanted to interpret as an indication of artificial body preservation such as mummification. Josef Weninger drew exactly the right conclusions, namely that after the decomposition of soft tissue, the rib cage must have been filled by ‘fortunate soil filling’ (1954: 4).


Spine of adult over spine of Child A

The adult man was placed directly over the children’s bodies. There was no soil separating the skeleton, which makes a single depositional event (a multiple rather than collective grave) quite certain. The spine of Child A came to lie just under the spine of the adult and provided a barrier – this caused a specific break in the alignment of the lumbar vertebrae.



Cervical vertebrae of the adult male

When Doris and Michaela examined the skull of our adult male buried in supine position, we were able to lift the skull and look at the joints of the cervical vertebrae. The skull was found lying on the right side, but the cervical vertebrae were still straight – they had not rotated to turn the head while it was still articulated. Instead, the skull had fallen towards the right side after the joints had decomposed. We could therefore ascertain that originally, the head was looking straight ahead when it was buried. In fact, the position of the skulls of the Children A and B does also not align well with the anatomical articulation. It appears that post-depositional processes were responsible for the movement and turning of the skulls. Water could have penetrated the grave at some point after the connection between the head and spine had broken down, which may have caused the ‘light children’s skulls’ to float (Weninger 1954: 26).

The re-assessment of the Schleinbach individuals suggests that the man was between 27 and 35 years old when he died, the children were aged 3-4, 8-9 and 12-14 (Pany-Kucera, Spannagl-Steiner and Rebay-Salisbury in prep). If the DNA analysis returns usable results, we will know the sex of the children, and if and how they were related. The individuals share some morphological traits that makes a genetic relationship likely; in close, kinship-based communities of the early Bronze Age, such general similarities are not surprising. Only the youngest child had evidence of head injury, an impression fracture, which might have been the cause of death. The context, however, suggest that all individuals died at the same time, perhaps from the same cause – brutal murder. An alternative explanation (put forward by Weninger 1954 on the basis of Kriegler’s suggestion) is that it was an adult man’s burial, with the three children constituting a human sacrifice on the occasion of his funeral. This, to me, is not a likely explanation, for three reasons: first, the pit is located slightly off the grave group and most likely a former settlement structure, second, the children were clearly placed first and the adult on top – with grave goods, the body is usually placed first and grave goods are placed around the body, and third, human sacrifice is not part of the usual cultural practice of the early Bronze Age.

The bodies were haphazardly dumped in an old storage pit, which may have been closed by a cover. The bodies initially composed in a void, but after the decomposition of soft tissue, the void was filled by fine sediment and left undisturbed until 1931. The open legs of the adult suggest that the lower body had not been bound or restrained by a shroud; it was either naked or covered by lose clothing.

The fact that the skeletons were preserved in situ (on top of being photographed – quite unusual for the time!) has helped to extract much more information on this unusual burial context that if they bones had been put in a box and stored, as so many others were. At present, the storage of the block-parts in far from ideal, but we will work out a sensible storage solution with the Natural History Museum in Vienna, where the skeletons will be united with the rest of the collection from Schleinbach. An excavation of the skeletons under controlled conditions and after 3D-scanning is only the second best alternative to preserving the skeletons in its original surroundings. We do not know yet what questions future generations of archaeologists will ask on the basis of this material – but we are immensely grateful to the foresight of the imaginative excavator Karl Kriegler who started work on the site over 100 years ago.

Duday, H. 2006. “L’archéothanatologie ou L’archéologie de la mort (Archaeothanatology or the Archaeology of Death),” in R.L. Gowland and C.J. Knüsel (eds) Social Archaeology of Funerary Remains. Oxford: Oxbow: 30-56.

Duday, H. 2009. The Archaeology of the Dead: Lectures in Archaeothanatology. Oxford: Oxbow.

Pany-Kucera, D., Spannagl-Steiner, M. and K. Rebay-Salisbury in prep. Early Bronze Age individuals from Schleinbach: a re-examination and complementary assessement of the skeletal material.

Weninger, J. 1954. Frühbronzezeitliche Skelette aus Schleinbach in Niederösterreich. Teil 1: Eine seltsame Mehrbestattung aus Schleinbach (NÖ). Archaeologia Austriaca 16: 1-27.

Weninger, M. 1954. Frühbronzezeitliche Skelette aus Schleinbach in Niederösterreich. Teil 2: Die Einzelbestattungen aus Schleinbach (NÖ). Archaeologia Austriaca 16: 28-66.

Rettenbacher, M. 2004. Die Siedlung und die Gräberfelder von Schleinbach: Eine Studie zur Aunjetitz-Kultur im südlichen Weinviertel. Archäologische Forschungen in Niederösterreich 2. St. Pölten: Niederösterreichisches Institut für Landeskunde.

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