Bronze Age Miners in the Alps Imported Pre-processed Food

Rather than waste their time farming wheat and pigs, copper miners in the Austrian Alps imported stuffs in ready-to-cook form, or already as food

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The mountainous site of Prigglitz-Gasteil in Lower Austria, in the easternmost fringe of the Alps.
The mountainous site of Prigglitz-Gasteil in Lower Austria, in the easternmost fringe of the Alps.Credit: © Bwag / CC-BY-SA-4.0

Mining in prehistory wasn’t an occupation for the unwashed masses, it seems. In Israel, archaeologists investigating the so-called Solomon’s copper mines in Timna have uncovered indications that the mining community in that barren desert site was elite. Now a new report concludes that Bronze Age miners in the Austrian Alps relied on importing processed and possibly even pre-prepared foods, from cereals to meat, rather than cultivating their own.

Thusly the miners producing copper at the mountainous site of Prigglitz-Gasteil in Lower Austria could devote their time to their specialist occupation rather than the time-consuming, laborious engagement in growing crops and husbanding livestock, posit Andreas Heiss of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and colleagues in PLOS ONE.

Processed food in this context doesn’t mean cheese puffs or deconstructed grains in breakfast cereals. Asked for definitions, Heiss explains: “Processed food” refers to raw ingredients that have undergone preparation for cooking: grains and seeds that have been cleaned of indigestible husks and the like. It can also refer to meat and dairy products as well.

The miners in the prehistoric Austrian Alps also imported not only processed foods like that, but “pre-processed” foodstuffs, which had been processed before their arrival at the site – a prehistoric “convenience product” such as meal or flour, possibly even mush, he tells Haaretz.

And how did they figure all this out?

The Late Bronze Age metallurgical site of Prigglitz-Gasteil (Lower Austria) during excavation.Credit: Peter Trebsche / University of Innsbruck

The curious incident of the missing chaff

Prigglitz-Gasteil, or Prigglitz-Gasteuil, is a lovely site in the easternmost fringe of the Alps, where people mined and processed copper from the 11th to the 9th centuries B.C.E. It was an opencast mine that went as deep as 30 meters below the surface of the land.

Early metallurgists also processed the metal at the site, smelting it out of the rock, refining it and casting it, working on terrain terraces that had been cut into older layers of mining debris, the team writes. The miners’ wooden domiciles were also located on terraces.

The archaeologists set about deducing the plant part of the miners’ and metallurgists’ diets based on charred remains, i.e., they had been cooked.

The plants they ate included several species of wheat and barley (which had been domesticated in the Levant); millet (which had been domesticated in China); lentils; and more. All were likely cultivated in the area surrounding the mining site, but not at the mining site, Heiss clarifies. The miners ate what the people around them were eating, the team deduced.

Charred finds of the most important cultivated crops from the Late Bronze Age layers at Prigglitz-Gasteil. a) broomcorn millet, b) foxtail millet, c) lentil.Credit: OeAW-OeAI/S. Wiesinger

But the miners’ food had obviously been processed and even pre-processed at its source, presumably neighboring villages or farmsteads, not at the mining/metallurgy site, Heiss says. A key clue lies in something that would have been there if they were husking and processing grains at the site, but was glaringly missing: chaff.

“Cultivation itself (i.e., cereals in the field) usually leaves no traces in central European soils,” Heiss explains. But processing the crop very often does. “The remains and byproducts have a higher chance of charring, e.g., within the course of disposing of agricultural wastes. If, at our site, certain processes of crop cleaning such as threshing, winnowing and so on had taken place, we would also find quite some chaff,” he explains.

They would even have found chaff in the case of “uncleaned” crops such as hulled wheat still within its glumes (husks), if they had been around in abundance.

But the presence of large amounts of grains at the site, without commensurate amounts of chaff, is the telltale in archaeobotany that the locals were importing “ready-to-cook” grain. In fact, it’s much like we do today when we pick up a kilo of packaged rice at the grocery, sometimes even precooked in the form of “minute rice.”

Sediment layers on Terrace 3 (T3) at Prigglitz-Gasteil.Credit: UIBK/P. Trebsche
Typical state of preservation of the cereal grain fragments from Prigglitz-Gasteil.Credit: OeAW-OeAI/S. Wiesinger

Missing links and ham

Technically the main goal of the team, Heiss with Thorsten Jakobitsch, Silvia Wiesinger and Peter Trebsche, was cereal processing as the “missing link” between farming and consumption, and here the missing link doesn’t seem to have been at the mining site.

There was one other key thing glaring in its absence that spoke of habitual imports.

“The miners imported ‘ready-to-cook’ cleaned grains, but also something in a more advanced stage of processing, such as flour/meal or even a pre-cooked product,” Heiss explains. And we know this how? “We have possible cooking vessels on site, but no grinding stones. They may have had wooden grinding/pounding tools, though,” he qualifies.

And they imported their meat too. Analysis of Bronze Age mining sites in the Alps has consistently shown a predilection for pig. But these too were raised elsewhere, not in the mountainous mining and metalworking sites but in more appropriate areas, the team writes. That is based in part on solid evidence and in part on estimates of the land necessary to husband livestock.

Again, processing is a question. Were the pigs herded, walked to the copper site and slaughtered there? Were they bred and bested elsewhere and brought as salted, preserved meat; Bronze Age bacon and the like? It’s hard to say.

“Basically, the pigs could have been bred right somewhere in the surroundings. The body parts which were present on site as well as the cut marks found on them points towards a rather ‘standardized’ production of pork,” Heiss observes. The same pattern was found in the Bronze Age salt mine of Hallstatt, where archaeologists (separately) also found evidence for large-scale pork curing, he adds.

SEM micrographs of the cereal products from Prigglitz-Gasteil. a) foxtail millet glume, b) cereal aleurone, c) barley aleurone, d) barley aleurone, e) hulled barley glume, f) barley transverse cells.Credit: OeAW-OeAI/A. G. Heiss

Yet again a missing element rears its missing head. “However, it is exactly the body parts rich in meat (i.e. ham) which are missing in Prigglitz, so we have a situation inverse to the evidence of cured ham as documented for, for instance, the contemporary salt mines of Hallstatt. Where the ‘Prigglitz ham’ has gone to is currently still a puzzle for the archaeozoologists involved,” he tells Haaretz.

To be sure, the miners also ate other animals. But the team estimates that about two-thirds of the Prigglitz miners’ meat consumption was pork. They cannot, at least yet, speak of the balance between meat and veg, he says.

In any case the pattern of specialized communities of miners fed by proto-commercial farmers seems typical of Late Bronze Age mining sites in the Alps, he says – and is in stark contrast to “normal” contemporary settlements, where the main meat was cattle. And then, on the verge to Early Iron Age, the diet of the miners seems to shift toward beef.

The bottom line is the archaeologists believe both the grains and pigs were raised in the general vicinity, on farmsteads in the wider surroundings. It is possible they were raised farther afield but there’s no particular reason to think so. Some mining camps from the Alpine Bronze Age are less conveniently located for cultivation and husbandry, but Prigglitz-Gasteil specifically is located in the gentle Alpine foothills, with favorable climate and fertile soils, he adds.

And they augmented their diet with fruit and nuts, foraging for them on the gentle Alpine slopes, as prehistoric people did. How could the archaeologists know that? That’s a tricky question, Heiss answers. “In terms of quantity, there was a large amount of gathered fruits and nuts in the archaeobotanical record, indicating they were certainly an important part of the miners’ diet. We do not know for sure, however, when and where these wild fruits and nuts came from,” he acknowledges. “They could have been gathered right next to the mining site (and by the miners themselves), but they may also have been gathered by farmers, preserved by them (e.g., by drying), and then delivered to the mine.”

Far, far away in the ancient copper mines of Timna, deep in the southern Israeli desert, the miners and metallurgists would have faced similar problems, if for drastically different climatic reasons. Among the remains found at Timna were bones of fish of species that had to have been imported from the distant Mediterranean Sea, not the lowly nearby Red Sea. The archaeologists also found seeds from fruits that couldn’t have been grown in the desert clime, despite ancient advances in irrigation found in prehistoric Jordan, for instance. The Timnan miners ate of the grape and pomegranate – and recently excavators even found textiles dyed in purple. Yes, the purple, that purple, the murex dye thought to be the stuff of kings. And, it seems, Edomite copper miners of yore.