Boiling Water: An Experimental Archaeological Approach, Pt. 1

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Replica pots made for and used in this experiment. (Cat for scale?)

For my dissertation, I’ve done some extensive research on the subject of hominy. I’ve read numerous historical accounts, I’ve collected recipes and videos and recipes, and I’ve sampled any and all things hominy that money can buy. But the most rewarding experience I’ve had so far is making hominy using replica ceramic vessels based on those recovered from Moundville (A.D. 1120-1650, a Mississippian civic-ceremonial center, located in west-central Alabama).

I spent nearly a year collecting all the materials needed. First, my advisor, Jim Knight, and I grew flint corn, an essential ingredient for making Native American hominy. He and his wide also burned and collected hickory woodash. While the corn dried and the ash was being made, I commissioned five replica ceramic vessels from an extremely talented potter, Tamara Beane. Based on an actual pot recovered from the archaeological site of Moundville, Tammy made three medium-sized cooking jars, one large cooking jar, and a separate Late Woodland jar.

Let me take a minute to unpack some of those terms. First, Moundville is a large prehistoric Native American site located in west-central Alabama. It belongs to what we call the Mississippian period (A.D. 900-1500ish), a time when throughout the Southeast, groups began to grow and cultivate maize, build large platform-top earthen mounds, artificially level plazas, and engage in a complex religious system. There are Mississippian sites throughout the Southeast and Eastern Woodlands–some of the largest include Cahokia in St. Louis, Winterville in Mississippi, Etowah in Georgia, Spiro in Oklahoma. Moundville is the second largest Mississippian mound site, after Cahokia.

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Moundville pot that the replicas were based on. Tammy did an incredible job!

Though maize was incredibly important to many Mississippian groups, from an archaeological standpoint, we really don’t know much about how they ate it. We know, for example, that at Moundville, the common form of ceramic pot used to cook with was the a vessel form we call a jar (or more technically, the unburnished, coarse-shell tempered Mississippian jar, but that’s probably too much information!). And we know that they were primarily eating corn cooked in water (not corn on the cob), but that’s where what we know ends.

So for my research, I want to know as much as possible about how the people who lived at Moundville cooked their maize. I wanted to walk through all the steps, from seed to dish, so I could begin to understand what their daily lives looked like, and also, what their culinary tradition was like.

And now we arrive back to Tammy Beane and why I commissioned a potter renowned for her amazingly authentic replicas to make me a set of replica Moundville cooking jars.

Based on the overall shape of the jar, especially when compared to earlier (Woodland) cooking jars that were not of the Mississippian tradition, it seemed to both my advisor and I that Moundville jars were suspended over a cooking heat, and not, as was done during the Woodland period, placed directly within a cooking fire. Our suspicions were partially corroborated by an observation we’ve both made–neither of us has ever found a small or medium sized Moundville jar with soot on it, a sign that jars were not placed within fires but suspended over them. Were Mississippian standard jars placed directly in a fire, there would be a residual soot ring left around the body, as well as soot on most of the body.

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Mississippian replica jar suspended over hot coals.

While hot coal cooking is not well-known in America, and certainly was not well-known to this American, it is a common culinary practice found world-wide and was also historically practiced throughout the Americas. Following guidelines I found on a Medieval European reenactment website (where a talented reenactor cooked an entire chicken in a stew pot over hot coals!), I decided we should make the coals in one place, then transfer them to our Moundville-style cooking hearth (a small clay lined pit). If we let a fire burn under our pot, it would leave a soot ring. Further, if we made the coals, then suspended the pot, we wouldn’t be able to make more coals. Transferring them seemed the most appropriate.

Once we figured out the logistics of the experiment, we had to set to establish our goal. To both of us, it seemed the first thing we needed to do was to, in fact, demonstrate that you can boil water in a Moundville jar suspended over hot coals. Call it our American bias, but I’m not sure either of us was convinced hot coal cooking was an effective culinary technique.

Over a three day period (September 1-3, 2015), we suspended one of my replica Moundville pots over a bed of hot coals in order to boil water. Sure enough, we were able to boil water! It was a slow process, taking between 30 to 40 minutes to boil 3 liters of water, but we did it nevertheless! And, like any good experience, we learned a few lessons in the process. First, not only is hot coal cooking effective, but hot coal cooking is HOT!!!! In order to transfer the coals, you need something like two forked branches or a metal shovel to move them (we used the latter, which wasn’t very authentic!). Second, the coals need airflow to stay hot, so they can’t crowd the pot. You need to leave a little space. We also learned that certain wood makes better coals than other–namely, hardwoods, like beech and hickory, are the best.

After successfully boiling water (while watching the pot the whole time, so take that silly old adage!), we next decided to try making hominy! That, however, is an entirely separate post!

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