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.

References

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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About Katharina

Katharina is a prehistoric archaeologist working at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Her main research interests include the archaeology of the human body, gender, identity and personhood as expressed through funerary practices and art. She specialises in the Bronze and Iron Ages of Europe. As a mother of two young boys, she gathered some practical experience in addition to her theoretical interest in motherhood.
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