Some foods rot fast—so it’s cause for celebration among archaeologists when they dig up food preserved for centuries past its expiration date. Here are seven of the most venerable victuals ever found.
1. Roman Wine in a Sealed Bottle
There was a long period in European history when Romans seemed to have their imprint on everything, from mysterious mechanical objects to curses to urine-based mouthwash. And they evidently liked to be buried in style. In 1867, archaeologists found a bottle of Roman wine dating to about 325 CE near Speyer, Germany, which has since been authenticated as the oldest known that is still in a liquid state. It was found in one of two sarcophagi with many other bottles that had long since dried up. This bottle stayed potable because the olive oil used to protect the wine from oxidizing did its job really well. After 1600 years, the contents are both waxy and silty, and the alcohol content is long gone.
2. Britain’s Oldest Bread
Some said the flooded hole in Oxfordshire, UK, was a garbage pit; some thought it was a place of religious offering. Whatever its original purpose, by the end of the 20th century the hole had small pieces of charred bread and other Neolithic odds and ends floating in it. Estimated to be 5500 years old, the overcooked bread was mistaken for charcoal at first. Then one of the archeologists noticed crushed grains of barley in it. If the age is correct, it would have been made by some of the first people to migrate to Britain from Europe.
The world’s oldest bread-like grain product, described in a 2018 paper, was made between 14,600 and 11,600 years ago—or about 4000 years earlier than humankind began practicing agriculture.
3. Ancient Chinese Bone Broth
While excavating ground to make way for a new airport, Chinese workers unearthed a sealed bronze cooking pot containing liquid broth and bones estimated to be about 2400 years old. The discovery was made in a tomb near the former capital city of near Xian, not far from where the famous terracotta army was found in the burial site of China’s first emperor. The soup didn’t look too savory, having turned green from more than two millennia of bronze oxidation.
4. Irish Bog Butter
In Ireland 3000 years ago, you had limited options for storing your barrels of butter. Archeologists were grateful that some ancient residents chose to sink theirs into a County Kildare peat bog—and then forgot about it—when they discovered a barrel of “bog butter” in 2009. Mostly intact, the wooden container was still full of butter, though it had lost its creamy richness in the interceding millennia, turning to a fatty white substance called adipocere.
5. The Primal Noodles
Thanks to a discovery at the Lajia archeological site on China’s Yellow River in 2005, the debate over where noodles originated may be over. No other historic pasta has even come close in age to Lajia’s 4000-year-old cache. At that time in history, an ancient earthquake suddenly flooded the Yellow River valley, and one unfortunate diner left a bowl of millet noodles overturned in their haste to escape. "It was this unique combination of factors that created a vacuum or empty space between the top of the sediment cone and the bottom of this bowl that allowed the noodles to be preserved," archeologist Kam-biu Liu told the BBC.
6. China’s Oldest Beef Jerky
Beef jerky travels well, especially on journeys to the next world. That is probably why the occupant of a 2000-year-old tomb found in the village of Wanli, China, packed so much of it. Archaeologists concluded that the black and green carbonized mess they found sealed inside a beautiful bronze pot was beef, and the oldest beef ever found in China. The meaty blob had not shrunk over the millennia, demonstrating that it had already been dried before being placed in the tomb.
7. Extremely Old Commemorative Chocolates
Spanish explorers brought chocolate, a foodstuff native to Central and South America, to Europe in the 16th century. It’s likely that not much of the original sample survives today, but a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate made in 1902 might have the best provenance. The candy was sold in a souvenir tin box commemorating the coronation of Edward VII, and its lid featured portraits of the new British king and his wife, Alexandra. It’s now in the collection of the Annan Museum in Scotland.
This story originally ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2022.