Researching food cultures without written recipes

Refr Fiachson/Patrick Cauldwell March, 2013

The central problem

Unfortunately, many of the cultures we strive to recreate didn’t think to leave us with written recipes describing the foods they ate and how they prepared them.  This makes it much more difficult for us to reconstruct that most important piece of their everyday lives.  Food is such a central part of human existence that we can’t really come to an understanding of what life was like for peoples of the past without understanding their food. 

There are a few different reasons why we might not have written recipes for various cultures we try to recreate.

No written language

Obviously, if a people didn’t use a written language we won’t have written evidence about what they ate.  In some cases cultures of the past simply were not literate, and in others writing was reserved for specific tasks.  In the case of the Viking age Scandinavians, there was a written language in use, but it was reserved largely for simple tags and inscriptions rather than for commentary or discourse on their society.

No interest in writing recipes

Even if a culture did use a written language, they may not have used it to write about food.  Recipes as we know them today appear in Imperial Rome, then again during the Middle Ages in Western Europe.  In both those cases, almost all the examples we have of written recipes were written by and for professional cooks, and represented the food of the wealthy.  So even for those times and places for which we do have recipes, they represent only a small segment of the overall food culture and may still leave us unable to speak about the common food of the time.

Some possible solutions

So what can we do to try and come to a better understanding of what people really ate?  And not just the wealthy, but the common people as well?  There are a few things we may be able to learn from written sources, but for the most part we have to rely on the archeological record for suggestions, if  not answers.

Written sources

Even if the culture we are focusing on directly did not leave us any recipes, there may be some related sources that we can take advantage of.

Contemporary sources

While the Vikings themselves may not have written about their food, we can look at neighboring cultures in England or France of Germany from the same period to see what they had to say about food.  In some cases there may be travel writing or descriptions by neighboring peoples that we can use.  The trouble with any of these is that they can have some pretty significant bias and shouldn’t be taken at face value.  If we want to know about Viking food, for example, we can look at what the English were writing about their own food, but that may not really correspond culturally to what the Vikings were eating.  Or we could look at what the English were writing about the Vikings, but we can’t trust those sources to be either fair or accurate representations.

Later sources

In the case of the Vikings, the vast majority of the written sources we have are not contemporary with the actual events they recorded.  The Icelandic sagas were written 2-300 years after the Viking period.  There are a few descriptions of food and eating in the sagas, but nothing that is particularly detailed or anything like recipes. 

By the time the sagas were being written, there were probably more similarities between Scandinavia and the European mainland due to improved trade and travel conditions.  Also, consider how different what we eat today is from what the everyday diet was in Colonial America.  That’s about the same amount of time displacement as that between the Viking age and the sagas.  Viking Scandinavia was probably a bit more culturally conservative, so the differences may not have been as drastic.  However, it means viewing the Viking age through a cloudy lens. 

That means that while we might get some clues from such sources, we have to take it all with a grain of salt and be cautious about how much we rely on them for solid evidence. 

Non-food related writing

In some times and places we have written sources that aren’t about food but which can give us clues.  One of the best examples is from Republican Rome.  Cato’s “On Agriculture” is a treatise about agricultural practices, but in the process of describing farming and farmers of the time Cato recorded many details about what farmers were eating and what their cooking practices were like. 

In many cases, however, these kinds of sources may just not be available.  There are no comparable sources for the Viking period. 


Given all the problems with potential written sources, our best avenue of research lies in the archeological record.  There is a vast amount of material in the ground, and more and more of it becomes available every day.  There are several areas of archeology that can give us excellent clues into the diets of cultures past.

Biological evidence

Many archeological digs now spend time on collecting and publishing information about the biological material they find.  There is a vast amount of data becoming available about the flora and fauna from archeological digs.  Plant remains, pollen grains, seeds, nuts, bones, insect remains, shells, and other material are all present in the ground, and more and more of the data is being published. 

Not only can we find out what species of plants and animals were being eaten, but how those animals were raised, how old they were when they were slaughtered, and in some cases even what they were eating. 

Looking at biological evidence reports tells us what ingredients were available for eating, and in what cultural contexts they were found.  It doesn’t tell us anything about how those things were cooked or eaten, but at least we know they were present.

Material culture

In addition to biological evidence, archeologists also dig up bits of material culture that can tell us about how food was stored, processed, and cooked.  Grain mills, grain stamps, cheese molds, cooking pots (ceramic and metal), frying pans, chains and tripods for hanging pots over a fire, spoons, plates, bowls, and whey storage vats are all examples of food related items that have been found in the Viking context. 

Taken as a whole, these items allow us to understand how food was cooked, processed, and stored.  We can’t assume that all the possible types of equipment have been unearthed, but we can know what was possible.  For example, from the existing items, we know that the Vikings could have boiled food in pots over a fire, that they could have heated food in or on metal pans over a fire, that they had means of grinding grain at home, pressing cheese, and stamping grain to remove the hulls. 


Understanding the agriculture of our target society can also give us clues about how their food was grown and processed, how abundant it may have been, and how much work it was to produce or gather their food. 

For example, we know that agricultural equipment in Scandinavia was several centuries behind the European mainland during the Viking period.  That limited the amount of land that could be cultivated and how much that land would yield.  There was very little cultivation of rye during the Viking period in Scandinavia, but it took off shortly afterward with the introduction of the moldboard plow.

Food remains

In a few cases, we even have extant examples of actual foods.  In the Viking context, there are several examples of whole or partial loaves of bread.  Such examples provide an excellent opportunity to learn about the kinds of food that were actually being eaten, but they are sadly fairly rare.  If we do find them, however, modern science allows us to get detailed information about what they contained.  In the case of the Vikings breads, we know what grains and seeds they were made from, how much fat was used in their production, whether or not there was bacterial or yeast action involved, etc.

Another area in which there have been some very interesting finds of extant foods has been in brewing.  Vessels that once contained beverages, or in a few cases the beverages themselves still in liquid form have been found and analyzed.  We can learn what ingredients were used, and how they were fermented.

Scientific analysis

In the past twenty or so years, more and more complicated forms of scientific analysis have been applied to archeological remains.  Spectral analysis, isotope analysis (beyond radio carbon dating), and the analysis of lipids remaining in the soil or pottery have given us new insights into the items and people of the past.

Lipid analysis

Looking at lipids (fats) left in various soils, pottery, or food remains can tell us a great deal.  Lipids that come from animals can be distinguished from those that come from plants.  When looking at soil samples, it can be determined which fats where used in whose kitchen.  For example, in some Scandinavian sites it can be determined that sites used for religious purposes contain more traces of animal fats, and home sites contain more plant fats.  That suggests that meat was less prevalent in home kitchens than in religious sites. 

Pottery cooking vessels can be similarly analyzed to find out what was cooked in them, at least in terms of plant vs. animal foods. 


Remains of ceramic vessels can be analyzed not just for their fat content but also for plant remains.  In some Viking examples, plant material left in the pots show cell wall degradation consistent with fermentation.  That tells us that plant material (i.e. vegetables) were probably fermented in those vessels (think sauerkraut). 

Bone fragments

One of the more recent techniques in archeology involves comparing the ratios of certain stable isotopes (C 12 and N14, notably) to determine what was in the diets of people and animals at a macro level.  For example, we can tell if a given person or population ate more meat than plants, or more fish than meat, or more fresh water fish than salt water fish.  This doesn’t give us any specifics, but does give us some hints about the broadest bounds of their diet.  It also allows us to compare populations to see if, say, bones from high status graves indicate more meat consumption than bones from low status graves.


Below are example sources representing each category of archeological or scientific evidence given above.

Biological evidence

Hall, Allen, and Harry Kenward. Assessment of Plant and Invertebrate Macrofossil Remains from Excavations in 2002 at Kaupang, Norway. York: Centre for Human Palaeoecology, 2003. Print. Reports from the Centre for Human Palaeoecology, University of York.

Johnstone, C. et al. “Assessment of Biological Remains from 41-49 Walmgate York (site Code 1999.941).” Reports from the Environmental Archaeology Unit, York 4 (2000): 46. Print.

Jørgensen, Grethe. Analyses of Medi[e]val Plant Remains, Textiles and Wood from Svendborg. [Odense]: Odense University Press, 1986. Print.

MCGUIRE, ERIN-LEE HALSTAD. “Archeology in Iceland: Recent Developments.” Scandinavian – Canadian Studies Volume 16 (2005): n. pag. Print.

Mitchell, G, and National Museum of Ireland. Archaeology & Environment in Early Dublin. [Dublin]: Royal Irish Academy, 1987. Print.

Material culture

Colleen Batey…; edited by James Graham-Campbell. Cultural atlas of the Viking world. New York: Facts on File, 1994. Print.

Johnstone, C. et al. “Assessment of Biological Remains from 41-49 Walmgate York (site Code 1999.941).” Reports from the Environmental Archaeology Unit, York 4 (2000): 46. Print.

Walker, Harlan. Milk : Beyond the Dairy : Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. Prospect, 2000. Print.

Edited by William W. Fitzhugh and Elisabeth I. Ward. Vikings : the North Atlantic saga. [Nachdr.]. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press in association with the National Museum of Natural History, 2000. Print.


Astill, Grenville, and John Langdon. Medieval Farming and Technology: The Impact of Agricultural Change in Northwest Europe. Brill Academic Publishers, 1997. Print.

Food remains

Hansson, Ann-Marie. On Plant Food in the Scandinavian Peninsula in Early Medieval Times. Stockholm: Archaeological Research Laboratory  Stockholm University, 1997. Print.

McGovern, Patrick E. Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages. 1st ed. University of California Press, 2010. Print.

“Pre – and Protohistoric Bread in Sweden : a Definition and a Review.” Web. 25 Mar. 2011.

Lipid analysis

Isaksson, Sven. “A Kitchen Entrance to the Aristocracy — Analysis of Lipid Biomarkers in Cultural Layers.” Laboratiu Arkeologi 10 (1998): n. pag. Print.

—. “VESSELS OF CHANGE : A Long-term Perspective on Prehistoric Pottery Use in Southern and Eastern Middle Sweden Based on Lipid Residue Analyses.” Current Swedish Archeology 17 (2009): n. pag. Print.


Isaksson, Sven. “The Culture of Food in Early Medieval Middle Sweden. A Pottery Use Perspective.” Food and Rank in Early Medieval Time. Stockholm: Archaeological Research Laboratory [Arkeologiska forskningslaboratoriet]  Univ., 2000. Print.

—. “VESSELS OF CHANGE : A Long-term Perspective on Prehistoric Pottery Use in Southern and Eastern Middle Sweden Based on Lipid Residue Analyses.” Current Swedish Archeology 17 (2009): n. pag. Print.

Bone fragments

Kerstin Liden, and Erle D. Nelson. “Stable Carbon Isotopes as Dietary Indicator, in the Baltic Area.” Fornvännen 89 (1994): n. pag. Print.