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Niederkaina, an Overview of the Burials with Food Remains made of or containing Wheat

Updated: Nov 23, 2022

The Archäotechnisches Zentrum Welzow e.V. contributes to the Year On The Field with an experimental project about Early Iron Age food, bread and buns. The evidence and the starting point of the research are the archaeobotanical analysis of the food remains from the archaeological site of Niederkaina (Bautzen, Saxony, Germany).

With almost 2000 burials, Niederkaina is one of the biggest Bronze and Iron Age burials grounds in Central Europe. The site has been researched for many years from the Landesamt für Archäologie Sachsen with the support of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG - German Research Foundation) [1].

The quantity of the good preserved burials allows to create a detailed chronology of the findings but also a detailed recontruction of the burial rituals and of the social structures and the cultural networks of the time. All of the human cremations have been anthropologically examined. The animal bones have been zoologically determinate.

Out of 1200 Iron Age burials, 95 delivered carbonized food remains. Most of them are fragmented, but many are in a very good conservation status so that is was possible to undertake botanical analysis of 150 samples. There are many different types of remains: very often we have remains of flatbread and porridge, but also bread loaves, bread buns and noodles. Food remains are extreme rare to be found in the archaeological records but are very important because they give us insights of the food culture of the time and help us understand how the prehistorical people processed their crops and how food was made.

Burial ground of Niederkaina, Distribution of the burials with food remains and systematic of the analyse (Herbig C., Kaiser J., Manschus G., 2016, 520) © Landesamt für Archäologie Sachsen. Grafik: [J. Kaiser]

The graves in Niederkaina are organized according to a redundant pattern. Each burial contains mostly the cremated rests of one person. The urn is generally covered with a bowl. These graves show a standardized form of the burial with pit or chamber graves.

The urn was accompanied by three standard elements named referring to their location in relation of the burial urn: the next-to-the-urn-pottery, the far-from-the-urn-pottery and the ceramic-pack. The next-to-the-urn pottery group is mostly made out of small vessels of a very good quality, which are interpreted as drinkware. Typical vessels are high-neck bowls, cups, bowls and pointed jugs. To the far-from-the-urn-pottery ensamble belong vessels with a most "domestic" character as well as an oven model with cooking plate, a bowl and a cup.

The third redundant element in the burials of Niederkaina is the ceramic pack, which was positioned mostly outside of the pit or grave chamber and contained mostly fragmented ceramic that had been exposed to secundary firing. The composition of the pottery ensamble is similar to the pottery of the next-to-the-urn-pottery-group.

Standard spacial distribution of the grave goods: urn (red), next-to-the-urn pottery (yellow), far-from-the-urn-pottery (blue), ceramic pack (green). (Herbig C., Kaiser J., Manschus G., 2016, 521) © Landesamt für Archäologie Sachsen. Grafik: [J. Kaiser]

Most of the food remains have been found on top of the ceramic pack or inside vessels such as cups or bowls. This shows us that food should have had a specifical meaning in the burial ritual. The funeral community most likely laid out the deceased on the pyre. The grave goods and the urn lined the pyre or stood on it. The vessels around it contained different types of food offerings that in part carbonized during the cremation of the corpse.

The archaeological analysis made it possible to identify them as noodles, bread pieces, flatbread and cereal porridge, fruit was found as well. On some food remains was still possible to recognize the imprints of leaves which is a hint of their preparation: they may have been rolled in leaves and then baked on the fireplace. The dishes were prepared mostly using millet (Panicum miliaceum) and emmer/spelt(Triticum dicoccum/spelta) as a main cereal and were mixed with other cereals like wheat, oat or barley. In almost all of the samples have been recognized lots of field weeds such as Bromus arvensis and Setaria viridis. Interesting is the use of opium poppy seeds from some of the burials.

In at least 6 burials [2] of the site of Niederkaina (Bautzen, Saxony, Germany) the presence of wheat is clearly documented. This cereal is mostly milled and was probably used in the preparation of food during the burial ritual. Due to the good quality of the flour, it is possible that wheat was used in other contexts as well.

Carbonized bread buns (Herbig C., Kaiser J., Manschus G., 2016, 522) © Landesamt für Archäologie Sachsen. Aufnahme: [C. Herbig]

What is interesting for us, is the fact that Niederkaina represents one of the earliest sites of central eastern Germany where wheat is documented, as to the time the most common cereal are millet and emmer. So we consider that the use of wheat in these specifical cases must have had a very clear significance.

[1] The results of the archaeological research will be published in the serie "Das prähistorische Gräberfeld von Niederkaina bei Bautzen. Veröffentlichungen des Landesamt für Vorgeschichte Dresden / Veröffentlichungen des Landesamt für Archäologie Sachsen". Up to now have been published the volumes 1 to 11, more are in print. [2] Quartier A, Grab 30, alt Grab 118; Quartier B, Grab 19, alt Grab 102; Quartier G, Grab 68, alt Grab 90; Quartier E, Grab 105; Quartier E, Grab 107; Quartier H, Grab 40, alt 58


Herbig C., Kaiser J., Manschus G., 2016 - Dem Feuer getrotzt: Nudeln, Brot und Hirsebrei. Archäobotanische und archäologische Untersuchungen zu den pflanzlichen Speisen vom vorgeschichtlichen Gräberfeld Niederkaina. In: Smolnik R (Hrsg.), Ausgrabungen in Sachsen 5, Beiheft 31, Arbeits- und Forschungsberichte zur sächsischen Bodendenkmalpflege, s. 519-532.

Maddalena Sartori

ATZ Welzow


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