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28 September 2016
Burnt cheese casts light on 3,000 year-old family drama

A clay pot has been unearthed during an archaeological excavation in central Jutland, Denmark. Museum Silkeborg curator and archaeologist Kaj Rasmussen says: "We found the clay pot in what was once a pit. Quite unusually, it was in near mint condition and this is itself is an exciting find."
     When they cleaned the pot, they discovered a layer of something burnt onto the inside. "Normally, you find black, charred deposits in the remains of pots that are typically from corn or seeds. But here we found a white-yellow crust that we hadn't seen before," says Rasmussen. "We then sent samples to the Danish National Museum to see if we could get closer."
     Chemist and senior consultant Mads Christensen, who conducted the analysis, says: "We took a microscopic sample of the remains and studied them using mass spectrometry. After we had consulted the literature in this field we cautiously came to the suggestion that is was bovine fat."
     Rasmussen's preliminary guess is that it could be the failed result of cheese making.
     "The fat could be a part of the last traces of curds used during the original production of traditional hard cheese. The whey is boiled down, and it contains a lot of sugars, which in this way can be preserved and stored for the winter," says Rasmussen. "It is the same method used to make brown, Norwegian whey cheese, where you boil down the whey, and what's left is a caramel-like mass that is turned into the brown cheese that we know today from the supermarket chiller cabinet," he adds.
     "I cannot help but wonder if someone had a guilty conscience. It's well and truly burnt and must have smelt terrible," says Rasmussen. "You can almost imagine how quickly he must have acted to get rid of that pot!"

Edited from Science Nordic (14 September 2015)

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