Communicating archaeology through cake

In July this year I entered the Heritage Jam, a project which hopes to draw out people around the world interested in communicating heritage through imagery. The event was held physically at the University of York’s Centre for Digital Heritage, although entries were welcome remotely. The theme to explore this year was ‘burials archaeology’. The Heritage Jam hoped to create (or perhaps uncover) a network of people who were enthusiastic about this method of communication:

The goal of The Heritage Jam is to bring people together to design and create forward-thinking pieces of heritage visualisation. (Heritage Jam website)

My cake, ‘Death (and burial) by chocolate‘ has been receiving some attention online lately, for example, it was recently the cover image on DigVenture’s list of archaeological cakes. It was also used by someone who contacted me via Twitter in a lecture to future teachers as a way to teach stratigraphy. Seeing as it’s been quite a popular work of mine, I thought I’d explain in a blog post why I made a cake, why it’s not just a cake, and why communicating complex concepts to children is an important thing to do with our time.

My entry: ‘Death (and burial) by chocolate’

Death (and burial) by chocolate

I am, unfortunately, almost totally lacking in artistic ability but happily I don’t seem to lack creativity. I really wanted to create a work that could communicate the theme of burials archaeology to children. I explained in the accompanying paradata document for my entry:

By its nature, burials archaeology can be confronting as the subject matter is death. Questions of ethical handling of human remains, investigating past disease and poor health, and the tragedy of loss must be dealt with by archaeologists. How then can we overcome these negative aspects of the field when trying to communicate the importance of this work when we speak with children?

Uncovering the burial
Uncovering the burial

I wanted to create something that captured the sense of discovery and fun that is an inherent part of archaeology – after all, that’s what attracted me to it as a discipline. At the DIG Jorvik centre, a theme of detective work is explored as a way to introduce concepts of archaeology. In my archaeology cake, I wanted to have elements that children could uncover by looking at different aspects of the cake. I had also come across this quotation which inspired me to go ahead with my plan:

…learning is sometimes most effective when it is unexpected and informal’ (Kindler and Darras 1997: 125)

What is more unexpected than finding a burial in a cake?

 My method/recipe/rationale

Making the cake
Making the cake

I made three chocolate cakes with varying levels of cocoa powder, in an attempt to create the strata and highlight the different soil layers visible during excavations and core samples (this was harder than I thought). Between the layers, I used chocolate icing and almond meal, and chocolate icing and desiccated coconut to create different textures (I used only edible things to make the cake – no one wants to spit out gravel). After the layers were assembled, I cut down a trench through the top two layers which left a space exposed on the bottom layer. The only skeletal-looking thing I could find was a mummy figurine, so I put it on the bottom layer, then sprinkled chocolate sponge over it and used a brush to expose it.

For the gravel/stones, I used sugar cake decorations left over from the previous Halloween, cut a red and white drinking straw in half to make a scale pole, and added extra long bones by using dried lemongrass. The surface of the cake was decorated using a grass icing attachment to look like a grassy field with small sugar flowers. I made the top look as cartoonishly perfect as possible, to try and communicate to children that what lurks beneath the surface can be surprising. I sectioned off the trench with wooden chopsticks, tied red and white twine around it and placed a small wooden shovel at the corner of the trench.

I took the cake outside to photograph it. Why? I explained this in my paradata document:

The cake was taken outside and photographed on the lawn. This was a conscious decision to play with the idea of contextualising material culture, and acknowledge the significant role landscape plays in shaping a society or group. Post-processualism in archaeology has emphasised the importance of seeing material culture within its landscape in order to understand complex past cultures more fully (See: Bender 1993; Küchler 1993).


Communicating complex themes to children is important

The message of my cake entry was simple:

As well as developing concepts of time, history and geology, and skills like investigation, creativity and patience, archaeology can be fun and compelling.

I wanted to create an entry that would be a playful, fun and creative way of introducing themes of archaeology to a young audience:

The confronting nature of dealing with human remains, and the difficulties inherent in gaining meaningful insights from the archaeological record are important topics and anyone going into archaeology will have to deal with them. This triptych, however, deals with the more positive aspects of working in burials archaeology. At the risk of trivialising a serious scientific endeavour, the triptych aims to draw in a young audience and spark an interest in this field by using chocolate cake, colourful icing and household objects to communicate a simple message: burials archaeology can be so much fun!

 The entry I submitted was a photographic triptych, but the cake itself could be made by Young Archaeologists Clubs, groups, families, or birthday parties. It encourages focus on stratigraphy, creative thinking, problem solving and a re-evaluation of kitchen ingredients (like lemongrass long-bones, for example!).

Children are an important audience for communicating the profession and discipline of archaeology. The important role a museum can play in the education and development of children has been noted, and encourages a lifetime of learning (Kindler and Darras 1997). Sam Moser has noted the effect that exposure to imagery has on the children who grow up to be in archaeology or museum studies:

…as children, scientists would have read illustrated books, visited museum displays and watched films relating to the past; all of which would have created impressions that influenced them and fuelled their desire to pursue studies in the area. (2003: 4)

The reviews are in

A review on the  Heritage Jam website for my entry very kindly summed up my goals:

Cake!  This surely must be the first cake to ever come complete with its own paradata documentation.  It makes it even sweeter, and richer.  The layers of the cake lend themselves well to visualising processes of deposition, stratigraphy, excavation and recording.  This captivates its audience, engaging their senses of sight, smell, and, of course, taste.  A superb take on the Jam theme and without doubt the sweetest entry of the event!  Can we have another helping, please?

My entry didn’t win any prizes, but it was a hoot to make and, possibly most important of all: my family said it was delicious!


If anyone has ever made an archaeocake I would love to hear about it! My next archaeocake is more than likely going to involve an Egyptian theme, although I’m toying with the idea of a maritime archaeology cake… Possibly a future post on this!

Next week: I’ll continue with the theme of communication, by looking at the way we communicate Viking archaeology to children through books

Works cited

BENDER, B. 1993. Landscape: Politics and Perspectives, Oxford, Berg.

KINDLER, A. M. & DARRAS, B. 1997. Young Children and Museums: The Role of Cultural Context in Early Development of Attitudes, Beliefs, and Behaviors. Visual Arts Research, 23, 125-141.

KÜCHLER, S. 1993. Landscape as Memory: The mapping of process and its representation in a Melanesian Society. In: BENDER, B. (ed.) Landscape: Politics and Perspectives. Oxford: Berg.


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