Cooking pits/Experiment 2

August 5, 2012

In the second trial I was looking at the differences between interpretations of cooking pits in Norway and southern parts of Scandinavia. In short the former method would include placing the firewood at the bottom and stones on top, while the latter were made the other way around. The questions are, will there be any noticable differences in performace, and are we able to distinguish between the pits afterward.


The pits

Two pits (0,5 m*0,5 m) were dug next to each other. The pits were made square with slightly sloping sides, similar to the pits used at the museum.

In pit A we clad the bottom and somewhat on the sides with rocks with sizes ranging from one to three fists. On top of the stones we built a square pyre. In pit B we started by building a sturdy square pyre using the same amount of fire wood as in pit A. On top of the fire wood a layer of stones were laid out as evenly as possible. Both fires were then lit up at approximately the same time.

Baking the meat

For the experiment we used to pieces of meat (pork) of identical size. The meat for both pits were prepared in the same way as the meat is prepared on regular occasions on the museum that is wet newspaper and tin foil. Both packages were put into their respective pits at the same time. And then covered.


The pits

The pits seemed to burn evenly although they had to be fed more firewoods as we had set times for when the meat were to be buried. This meant that there were ending up firewood on top of the stones also in pit B, however I would consider it almost unavoidable, especially in larger pits. Before putting down the meat the temperature was measured in both pits. In both cases the temperature was 350°C.

The meat.

After about three hours the meat was uncovered and lifted up. They were both unwrapped according to the health and environment regulations of the site, and they were measured for inner heat. Also here we could notice that both pits had worked quite the same, both pieces of meat had an inner temperature of 86°C.

Conclusions and Thoughts

In general no real difference could be spotted between the two types of pit. It is however possible that it would prove easier to reuse pit A than pit B. Also these pits should be excavated by some of the staff on the museum to see if they appear differently after use. Pit B ought to display a layer of coals and soot under the stones, but it also possible that enough will be displaced by rain, animals and tourists that no difference can be observed.

Interestingly though, while working with the cooking pits an Icelandic visitor came by and said that his grandparents used to do pits like these upon which they baked legs of lambs. According to his memory the pits were laid out with fire woods in the bottom and then stone upon them. The meat itself were cooked with nothing but the skin to protect it.

This old Icelandic might either indicate that the southern interpretation has been wrong, or that there might be more practical reasons behind the way you build your cooking pit. In Northern Norway and Iceland the weather conditions are quite similar and the ground (except where it is volcanic) can be quite cold. By having your fire under the rocks, you will heat the ground better then if the stones protects the ground from the heat of the fire. On the other hand in the 2 by 2 metre pits found in the south it is not really feasible to place the firewood and stones as in pit B.

Preparation of the sheep

For the preparation of the sheep, singeing of the hairs proved most efficient, and went far quicker than expected. Descriptions of singing the hairs of a sheep’s head is mentioned in the sagas. As the fragrance of the herbs were not that noticeable I would also try to fill not only the cavity but also under the lifted skin with herbs. Perhaps some more liquid that is allowed to steam of in the cavity will carry with it more of the fragrance as well. (In the Romanian example a poor beaker filled with wine and wrapped in cloth is supposed to be placed in the cavity together with the herbs.)

The pit

The time used to prepare the pit and then cook the meat could possibly be shortened somewhat, but on the other hand we did not run the danger of overcooking the meat, giving us plenty of time to do other things while the meat was cooking. The size and the heat of the pit would have allowed us to easily cook at least yet another sheep in the pit together with the first one.

Baking the meat

The use of only the skin in order to protect the meat proved to be both successful and somewhat disappointing. Culinary, it proved to be advantageous and worked just as well as covering the meat in moss, leaves and other materials. The skin seems to have kept most of the juices and fat in, thus more or less baking the meat in them without losing any. However it did not work so well when it came to keeping the dirt out, the skin had also became soft and supple and broke as soon as we touched it. This also caused some troubles when we tried to lift the sheep. A possible solution to this would have been to cut and carve it from within the pit, although that might have caused burnt feet on behalf of the carver.

Culinary aspects

It was clear that the skin was enough to seal in most of the moist and fats while cooking, and in fact no parts of the meat were burnt, although the meat closest to the bottom was somewhat darker and dryer than the rest – but it is all a question of comparisons. The meat had cooked well and though there was no distinct taste of sheep, the fact that the meat was baked in its own fat and juices most likely improved both texture and taste.

Overall thoughts

In a cooking pit of the above dimensions one could easily cook two or even three sheep of 50 kg each, creating a meal that could only be consumed in the course of a large feast or a ritual gathering. While it requires quite some time in preparation preparing one or more sheep would have taken quite long regardless of method and any other way of cooking it would have required a constant supervision.

It is also possible that the actual process of digging up the animal could have been part of a happening or ritual as steam or smoke would rise from the pit when ever we start to open it.

The use of the skin to cover the meat must be seen as possible if somewhat inadequate as it is hard to avoid getting dirt on the meat, this could perhaps either be avoided by covering the meat with birch bark or wet straws or something similar. A better build of turfs might also make it easier to remove the dirt without getting to much on the meat. However I would suggest to keep the skin on for cooking purposes To make the neat little bundles with leaves and moss, appears far more difficult to me. Regardless of method it is of importance that the meat is kept from direct contact with the stones and that the fat is kept from dripping away.


Further thoughts

Although it seems quite plausible that the suggested cooking pits were indeed used for baking meat, several questions remain. Were they used and reused, or were they abandoned after each cooking occasion? While it would probably have been practical to reuse the same pit several times, the possible ritual aspect may have dictated otherwise.

Some further investigations into the archaeology of the cooking pits are needed in order to determine this. In the original cooking pits the stones should be checked to see if they had been reused, the soil ought to be analysed for lipids and the content and composition of the cooking pits re-analysed.

If given time and opportunity the permanent staff of the museum, Ekehagen, will be excavating the pit in about half a year to get a better picture of how the pit will look after use.


Preparation of the sheep

During the preparation of the sheep we noticed that the skin could be separated from the body without any excessive use of force, and would have been even easier if we had chosen to scald the sheep. This observation was in line with a piece of information I had received about Romanian cooking pits according to which one were to blow air under the skin of the sheep.

The pit

The fire in the pit was quite intense, and despite the rain which came and went during the day a radius of about half a metre around the pit stayed completely dry and was a good. The temperature in the pit could at this point be measured in excess of 350° C. When excavating the pit we soon could observe that the pit had kept the heat well as smoke started to bellow out as we dug down into the pit. As we continued to dig down we could also feel that the earth was warm.

Excavating the sheep

Although we were able to turn the turfs rather easily, still some of the earth did pour down and onto the sheep. At times we did unfortunately dig to close to the sheep and thus broke the skin. At the time the sheep was rather soft and trying to lift it out of the pit caused the limbs to break loose and some of the skin to break. To get the sheep out whole was problematic using this method. As we lifted out the sheep we could notice an outline of the sheep in the ground where the skin had stuck to the stone.

The culinary aspects

At this point the meat was very moist and supple, almost falling apart at touch, this was true also for the skin, which was thus not optimal to protect the meat against dirt, earth and soot. However most of the meat was more or less clean. While the meat was moist and supple, it had cooked almost completely clean from the bone, with some of the bones being more or less able to just be drawn from the meat. When we had lifted out the meat the inner temperature was measured to 82° C, which was well within the limits of the temperature that is required by health regulation and within the span that is suggested for a lamb roast. The taste of the meat was great and quite filling, but with only a limited fragrance from the added herbs and actually quite mild when I came to the lanolin taste of the fat. The fact that no salt had been used to prepare the meat was hardly noticed.

At an event at Ekehagen next week I am going to conduct two experiments in an Iron Age/Viking Age context. So in preparation for those I’d guess I try to write down some of my thoughts for the blog.


Experiment I Cooking pits.

Cookingpits have most likely been used in Scandinavia, from the Stone Age up until the Viking Age. What has been interpreted as possible cooking pits has be found at several Viking Age sites, these pits are about 1-2 metres across and are usually filled with fire cracked stones. Cooking pits are mentioned the Edda by Snorri so it is likely that the idea of them where present during the Viking Age. However, the interpretations do differ on how the pits where used and how the meat in them was prepared.


Trial I: Packaging the meat.


In the open air museums in Scandinavia most displays of cooking pits are made with inspiration from the cooking pits used in the Pacific ocean and pieces of meat are clad in leaves and birch bark, or one adopt to the regulations of the health department and use tin foil instead.


As the pits have a diameter from one to two metres across, I would suggest that the pits were not mainly used for chunks of meat but for whole animals. In order to keep them from burning and drying out, the animals were cooked with their skin still on. This practice was, according to some sources, used in the Balkans in the 19th century.


The experiment: To see if we can get a good result of the meat using just the skin to protect the meat from the heated stones. Is it a doable method and will this method still provide a good and juicy meat?


Trial II: Norwegian vs south Scandinavian cookingpits.


The basic principle of the cooking pit is that stones are heated and then the food that should be cooked is buried with the stones which will retain the heat for a long time. Though the prinicple is rather simple differing methods has been suggested based on the observations of cooking pits in Northern Norway and in the South of Scandinavia.


In the north the pits are suggested to first be packed with wood and on top of that a layer of stones are packed. As the wood burns under the stones they will be heated and when the wood is all burnt away the pit should be ready to cook the food. The advantage of this method is that there will be no carbonised wood on top of the stones that might cause cold spots when cooking.


In the south, instead, it has been suggested that the stones are packed in the bottom of the it and the wood burnt on top of the stones. The great advantage of this method is that t is easier to reuse, and that the readier access to oxygen will make this fire buring more fiercly.


The experiment: I will make two pits, one with each method, and as the wood has burnt out compare the temperature and the time it would take for the pit to reach an acceptable temperature.

In each pit a piece of meat that is packed the same way will be added and the pit closed. When the mat is believed to be finished it will be taken out and temperatures compared between the meat that has been cooked in each pit. If possible both pits ought to be excavated at a later point in order to compare them to the looks pits assumed to be cooking pits from a Viking Age context.