York students explore Viking cookery techniques in new YourDIG exhibition

Six A-Level students from York College have been instrumental in the creation of a new exhibition at DIG in St Saviourgate, which opens on Friday 1 February.  YourDIG: Melting Pot, the latest exhibition in York Archaeological Trust’s YourDIG series shows how the oils and waxes that soak into cooking pots reveal secrets of Viking diet – and society.

The YourDIG project was a joint initiative between York Archaeological Trust, York College and the University of York, where Dr Steve Ashby, Department of Archaeology, is leading a project called ‘Melting Pot’, which uses modern biochemistry to explore not just what the Vikings were eating, but how they were cooking it, and how different techniques were associated with different parts of society.  Six students of A-level chemistry explored the practical application of the theoretical science they were studying – using Viking cooking techniques in replica pots, and then analysing residues left behind to compare with archaeological samples.

“The idea behind our YourDIG exhibitions is to showcase a range of community-led initiatives from across York and North Yorkshire. The gallery is a space for local people to share their adventures in archaeology with the visitors to DIG. The idea of YourDIG: Melting Pot is to explore a different aspect of archaeology – not just looking at how we find artefacts today but also trying to understand how people made and used them in the past,” explains Jen Jackson, community engagement manager for York Archaeological Trust. 

During the project, students explored the hands-on side of investigative archaeology, including  experimenting with cooking techniques and the food that Vikings in York would have eaten – how long they needed to cook a meal to generate comparable residues or absorption of fats into the cooking vessels, for example.  “This kind of project demonstrates the huge range of disciplines involved in archaeology – the analytical side which happens well after the trench digging offers fascinating career opportunities for chemists and biologists, who use cutting edge techniques to reveal secrets of the past,” ads Jen.

Course tutor, Ian Martin from York College was excited to share this project with the students: “The students really enjoyed seeing their science applied to a practical problem. They all enjoyed the opportunity to actively take part in an archaeological investigation.”

For Dr Steve Ashby, projects like this are a fantastic way of introducing young people to bioarchaeology.  “It was great to be able to work alongside some very bright A-level students, and to introduce them to the ways in which archaeologists use chemistry to answer questions about past society. I don't think they were aware of this kind of application, and their help with the hands-on cooking work was very important in connecting what we see in the lab and on the finds bench, to what must have happened on the Viking-Age hearth.”

The research undertaken by the students will feed into a much larger analysis of pots, which Dr Ashby’s team will use to compare the patterning of residues according to time, location and social context.  He hopes that this will help answer a host of questions about our heritage: how changes in vessels being used relate to changing cooking techniques, and how cuisine varied between town and country.  Was food culture in the 'Scandinavian' north of England different to that of the 'Saxon' south,and how did both compare to contemporary Scandinavia itself?“We’re already starting to fill out some of the gaps in our knowledge about Viking-Age cooking and eating habits, by tying together two sets of data that have frequently been considered in isolation: faunal and botanical remains, and ceramic collections,” explains Dr Ashby.

The YourDIG: Melting Pot exhibition at DIG is free to enter.It opens on 1 February 2019.For more details, please visit digyork.com