Eating out seems to have been as popular 5,000 years ago as it is today, with archaeologists in Iraq uncovering an ancient tavern dating back to 2,700 BCE.
Researchers working in the ancient city of Lagash discovered that the pub, hidden just 19 inches below the surface, was split into an open-air dining area and a room containing benches, an oven, ancient food remains and even a 5,000-year-old fridge.
They initially found themselves in the open courtyard space, an area that was difficult to excavate, being “open and exposed to the outdoors,” Reed Goodman, an archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania, told CNN.
After returning to the mysterious courtyard a few months later, in fall 2022, field director Sara Pizzimenti, from the University of Pisa, broadened the trench.
The team then discovered the industrial-sized oven, a moisture-wicking ancient “fridge,” to keep food cool, and dozens of conical bowls, many containing fish remains, revealing the purpose of the courtyard to be an outdoor dining area.
An international team of researchers plans the next steps at Lagash. Credit: Lagash Archaeological Project
“I think the first feature to show itself was this very large oven and it’s actually beautiful,” Goodman said. “From various burning episodes and deposits of ash it left a sort of rainbow coloration in the soils and the interior is framed by these big bricks.”
Lagash, now the town of al-Hiba, was one of the oldest and largest cities in southern Mesopotamia — occupied from the fifth millennium until the middle of the second millennium BCE and encompassing an area of almost two square miles.
It has since become an important archaeological site, with excavations restarting most recently in 2019 as part of a joint project between the Penn Museum, the University of Cambridge and the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in Baghdad, using new techniques such as drone photography and genetic analysis.
Using state-of-the-art technology, the archaeologists are able to “see” underground and only excavate when necessary. Credit: Lagash Archaeological Project
Previous excavations focused on religious architecture and understanding the elites, but Holly Pittman — director of the Lagash Archaeological Project and curator of the Penn Museum’s Near East section — concentrated on non-elite areas during these latest excavations to provide a broader understanding of ancient cities.
Uncovering a tavern supports the perspective of Pittman and her team that society was not organized into just elites and enslaved people — the previous prevailing view — but included an ancient middle class.
“The fact that you have a public gathering place where people can sit down and have a pint and have their fish stew, they’re not laboring under the tyranny of kings,” Goodman said.
“Right there, there is already something that is giving us a much more colorful history of the city.”