When scientists recently examined the stomach contents of a 2,000-year-old sacrificial body found in a Danish bog, they learned his last meal was pretty prosaic: porridge and some fish, cooked in a clay pot.

But it turns out archaeologists can still find out a lot about what people once ate, even when there are no bodies to be found. In a feature for Knowable Magazine, science journalist Carolyn Wilke uncovers how scientists are using shards of pottery and the remnants of other vessels to learn more about long-ago diets.

“Gathered from bottles, fragments of ceramic pots and even relics from Bronze Age grave sites, microbes and remnants of molecules offer a bevy of new clues about ancient cuisine,” she writes.

Those clues rely on increasingly sophisticated technology that helps researchers analyze molecules that have been buried for thousands of years.

But it’s not an easy task.

Wilke breaks down the complex art of finding food remnants on old objects, figuring out what’s contamination and what’s actually worth studying — and figuring out how objects such as ceramic pots preserve the molecules.

It’s experimental archaeology that involves a lot of trial and error, as well as a few ingenious experiments, such as one in which researchers in New Zealand made food of their own in ceramic pots over and over again to better understand what clues that might yield.

Wilke rounds up old and new examples to show just how much the field has progressed, and touches on why it’s important.

“From scouring the traces of meals consumed long ago to reenacting the methods that made them, these scientists are unveiling aspects of the shared human experience that is cooking,” she writes.

To truly appreciate the narrative Wilke cooked up from decades of archaeological discovery, head over to bit.ly/ancienteats.