Prehistoric bakers did so much than just bread — they also produced scrumptious cereal rings, which may have served a ritual purpose.

The newly-discovered objects from the archaeological site. Image credits: Heiss et al / PLOS 2019.

Thanks to archaeological research, we have a pretty good idea about what plants our ancestors were growing and how they did it, but we know far less about how they prepared their food. In a new study, Andreas G. Heiss of the Austrian Archaeological Institute and colleagues present a previously unknown edible product: 3000-year-old pretzel-esque cereal rings.

Heiss and colleagues were studying the Stillfried hillfort, one of the most important archaeological sites in Austria. Some three thousand years ago, between 900-1000BCE, this settlement was an important grain storage facility, as revealed by the numerous charred remains of seeds discovered by archaeologists.

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Among the seeds and other remains, researchers found three ring-shaped objects, each around three centimeters across. Lab analysis showed that these rings are made of dough derived from barley and wheat. Furthermore, the dough appears to have been made from fine quality wet flower, which was left to dry without baking. This is an unusual and time-consuming process, and it’s not clear what the purpose of these rings were — perhaps they were intended for ritual consumption or were not for eating at all.

These rings also bear a striking resemblance to clay rings interpreted as loom weights found in the same pit and may have been designed to imitate them.

While their purpose is unclear, it just goes to show that even in these ancient times, food production processes were much more complex than we’d give them credit for. Heiss concludes:

“Prehistoric bakers produced so much more than just bread. A Late Bronze Age “odd” deposit from central European site Stillfried (Austria) yielded dough rings comparable to Italian tarallini, discovered together with a larger number of clay loom weights, likewise ring-shaped – resulting in new insights into the material culture of food, symbolism, and diversity of dishes.”

Future research will seek to learn more about these rings, as well as the function of the entire hillfort

Journal Reference: Heiss AG, Antolín F, Berihuete Azorín M, Biederer B, Erlach R, Gail N, et al. (2019) The hoard of the rings. “Odd” annular bread-like objects as a case study for cereal-product diversity at the Late Bronze Age hillfort site of Stillfried (Lower Austria). PLoS ONE 14(6): e0216907.