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NZ laboratory dates stone-age British bread - 14/01/2000

A New Zealand radiocarbon laboratory has helped establish the age of the earliest known bread found in Britain.

The Institute of Geological & Nuclear Sciences’ Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory was one of two labs worldwide asked to date bread fragments discovered in an archaeological dig at Yarnton, Oxfordshire.

The other lab was Oxford University’s Radiocabon Unit which 10 years ago helped date the Shroud of Turin. The two labs came up with results within three years of each other – around 3500BC.

Looking a bit like a burnt muesli bar, the bread consists of a number of coarsely ground gains; only barley can be readily identified. The find sheds new light on the dietary habits of ancient Britons, who are thought to be among the first pastoralists in England. Previously the oldest surviving piece of British bread dated from around 1000BC.

Manager of the Rafter Laboratory, Rodger Sparks, said it was increasingly common for important achaeological finds to be subjected to multiple dating tests.

" That the Rafter Laboratory was asked to participate in the project is an indication of the international reputation that the laboratory is gaining for this sort of work."

Dr Sparks said the dating presented no special problems even though the sample sent from Britain was only 100 milligrams – several crumbs.

" The technology at the Rafter Laboratory is ideally suited to dating small fragments of precious artefacts. Laboratory staff have a proven track record in producing reliable results."

Alex Bayliss, Scientific Dating Co-ordinator of English Heritage which manages archaeological projects in Britain, said: " It is impressive that two laboratories on different sides of the globe produced radiocarbon dates of within three years of each other for something over 5000 years old."

For more information contact:
Dr Rodger Sparks