A team of archaeologists on a dig in Cyprus recently uncovered what appeared to be an enormous 9000-year-old pit oven. The oven—a stone-lined hole in the ground—was 8 feet wide and 3 feet deep, making it the largest cooking pit of that type the archaeologists had ever encountered. It was so large, in fact, that several of the archaeologists began to doubt that it was an oven at all.
According to Live Science, the archaeologists felt that the pit might be too big to retain heat properly. They weren’t sure if it would even be possible to cook food in it. The director of the expedition, Andrew McCarthy, told Live Science, “I think it's probably the closest to the theoretical maximum that a pit oven of this type could be.”
So, McCarthy and his team decided that the only way to figure out if the oven was, in fact, an oven was to try it out themselves. They devised what’s called an “experimental archaeology project.”
Experimental archaeology is a subset of the discipline that tests hypotheses about the tools and technologies of the past by actually putting them into use. Archaeologists have built and tested out replicas of everything from Viking warships to stone age weapons in order to figure out how they worked.
In this case, the archaeologists built a replica of the stone oven in the backyard of a restaurant. They collected igneous rocks from local riverbeds, carrying them uphill in sacks (a process McCarthy estimates may have taken the original creators of the oven several years). Then they selected their meal based on the animal bones found near the original oven, settling on pig and goat. Finally, they invited 200 hungry volunteers to feast with them.
Preparations for the feast took several days—first, the team burned a fire in the pit oven for 24 hours to ensure the ground was dry enough. Then, the day before the feast, they seasoned the food, leaving it in the oven to cook overnight.
When the day of the feast arrived, the team began to worry that their experiment would be a failure. There was no way to know in advance whether the meat was cooking properly, or how it would taste. They realized that the success or failure of the experiment would be determined at the feast, itself, in front of their 200 party guests.
Fortunately, the food was delicious. The guests enjoyed the meal, and the archaeologists continued to eat roasted pig and goat leftovers for an entire week—proving that the oven was, indeed, an oven, and providing valuable insight into the daily lives of the Stone Age inhabits of Cyprus.
[h/t Live Science]