Here’s a little archaeological riddle I’ve been thinking about. From about 1350 to 1700, three-legged brass cooking pots were common in Sweden. When metal detecting in ploughsoil, you often find bits of them. They’re easily found as the fragments tend to be large and heavy: they make the detector sing loud & clear. But here’s the thing: you almost only find the feet and legs of the pots, hardly ever the wall or rim. Why is that? I think I’ve come up with an answer.
These pots weren’t used out in the fields. The reason that we find the feet there must be that household refuse was thrown on the manure pile and then carted out into the infields as fertiliser. The most likely place for a brass tripod pot to lose a leg was on the hearth in the kitchen. But this was not likely to go unnoticed: the pot would get overturned and spill its contents when it lost one of its three legs.
So, you have a broken brass pot that’s missing a leg, and you know where the leg is: among the embers on the hearth. What do you do? You put the broken pot away to sell it as scrap. But you can’t get the leg immediately: it’s glowing hot and possibly buried among the embers. So you decide to get it the next time you clean the ashes out of the hearth. And here’s where I think the legs get lost.
These hearths aren’t cleaned daily. When they do get cleaned, the person doing that chore needn’t be the same person who was using the pot when it broke, and if it is the same person, then it’s not certain that they still remember the broken leg. Also, in order to clean out the hearth without burning down the house, you need to put the fire out completely, which means that you’re working in the dark.
So every once in a while, legs and feet of these pots get thrown with the ashes onto the manure pile, and then carted out into the fields, where they spend 500 years before a metal detectorist finds them.
Update 15 March: Dear Reader Lassi HippelÃ¤inen pointed something out that I hadn’t thought of. “IMHO that pot was hanging from chains when it was over fire. It was standing on its legs only when it was brought to table.” And I agree. I’m not sure what this means for the likelyhood of legs breaking off on the hearth.