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17th century wine barrels turned loos reveal their…secrets

Archaeologists in Denmark have uncovered two large wine barrels from the 17th century that were turned into public conveniences and their contents have been rather revealing.

The team discovered the latrines (pictured, left) while excavating a site at Kultorvet in Copenhagen and have been sifting through the organic matter to see what the citizens of the city were eating over 300 years ago.

Mette Marie Hald, a senior researcher of environmental archaeology at The National Museum of Denmark, noted: “The people whose latrines we have investigated were well-fed on bread, fish and meat, alongside a variety of fruit, herbs and spices.

“Most of the food items were locally grown,” she added, “but some of the food plants were exotics, showing us that it was possible to buy, for instance, cloves, which would have come all the way from Indonesia.”

The presence of spices from the Far East suggests close ties with the Dutch, whose East India Company was active around Java at this time.

Dutch merchants are known to have been operating in Copenhagen in the late 17th century. A large number of artefacts such as coins, drinking glasses and pipes found in the area with largely Dutch origins also suggested many of the people living in the area at the time either were Dutch themselves or by locals “influenced by Dutch material culture”.

Herring and rye bread may have been staples for most Danes back then (as now) but the archaeologists also identified eel, cod and perch as well as apples, raspberries, cherries, dill and coriander and along with spices from Asia there was also evidence of luxuries from the Mediterranean such as figs, raisins, lemons and grapes – not in wine form though.

The botanical evidence for many of the foodstuffs had never been recorded archaeologically in Denmark before.

Unfortunately, along with a rather attractive-seeming diet there were also parasite eggs, indications of both undercooked food and poor kitchen hygiene.

As to the barrels themselves, there does not appear to have been any trace evidence of wine but the archaeologists stated in their report that the barrels were from the “Rhineland”.

Given Denmark’s close historical ties to its southern German neighbour this is of little surprise.

One might speculate that given the number of Dutch merchants in the city at the time and their activity in Bordeaux during the 17th century perhaps barrels of claret were turned over to similar uses once empty?

The report can be read here.

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