Three thousand years ago, someone had a pretty bad day.

A 3,000-year-old clay pot with cheese residue found burnt to the bottom. (Museum Silkeborg, Denmark)

Do you know that awful feeling when you forget something on the stove for too long? Sometimes, it gets so badly burned that you actually have to throw the pot away. That’s exactly what happened three thousand years ago to someone in Denmark, and while that person likely had a bad day, it made some archaeologists very happy.

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Finding burned traces of food is not that uncommon, but it’s almost always flour or seeds. Finding charred cheese or meat is extremely rare, and it provides us a glimpse into the life of ancient northern cultures.

“It’s an unusual find. You don’t often find these types of deposits. In general, it’s really rare to find such traces from these old objects,” Mads Chr. Christensen, a chemist with the Danish National Museum who analyzed the long-burnt meal, told the Science Nordic.

“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.

The pot, made from only clay, is remarkable in itself because not too many are left from its age and period. But when they analyzed its contents, that’s when the real surprise happened. Scientists found clear traces of dairy fat, likely from a failed attempt at making cheese.

“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,” archaeologist Kaj Rasmussen, whose team found the pot, told Science Nordic. “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.”

This was probably a real family drama at the time. While no one is really happy when they burn a pot, 3,000 years ago this could have been a big problem. They had to gather clay and make another pot from it, which took quite a lot of time – not to even mention the loss of the cheese itself.

“I cannot help but wonder if someone had a guilty conscience. It’s well and truly burnt and must have smelt terrible,” says Rasmussen, who ponders what family dramas came from the burnt pot.

“Were there any hard feelings over the missing cheese? Perhaps there was a little family drama? You can almost imagine how quickly he must have acted to get rid of that pot!”