Sunday 11 January 2015

Pit ovens

An earth oven or cooking pit is one of the simplest and longest used cooking structures. It is  also the oldest oven type used by people. The earliest ones were found in Central Europe, and dated to 29,000 BC. They were situated inside mammoth bone yurts and were used to cook mammoth meat. 

So what is an earth pit oven?

At its simplest, an earth oven is a pit dug in the the ground. A fire is lit at the bottom of pit and let to burn until only hot coals are left behind. The pit walls and the stones placed in the fire absorb and then radiate the heat back towards the center of the pit. This heat is then used to bake, smoke, or steam food inside of the pit. To make the earth ovens more efficient you can line them with stones as they are much better at absorbing and radiating back heat than the ordinary dirt. 

So how do you make a pit oven? First you dig a hole and line it with stones (optional).

The pit can be circular like the one on the picture above or rectangular like the one on the picture below.

Once we have a  pit, we need to light the fire inside the pit to heat the pit walls and to fill the pit with charcoal. 

Now that we have a pit full of hot coals, we can cook food in it or over it in variety of ways. 

For instance the food can be roasted on a spit over the pit oven. Because the heat is concentrated and preserved for a long time inside the pit by the stone walls, a small amount of wood can be used to roast a lot of meat.

In Serbia and in the rest of the Balkans, no major celebration can be imagined without a roasted pig or lamb on a spit. Where I come from, the roasting process always started with digging of a ditch, an oval shaped pit. The pit was then filled with slow burning hardwood which was burned and turned into a charcoal. Once the pit was full of the smoldering charcoal, the spit was put over the ditch and the roasting would start. Basically the pig was a spit roasted over a pit oven.

The modern version of this type of a pit oven for spit roasting is basically a brick, stone or metal tub, a "trough" filled with charcoal with a spit or spits placed over it.

If you only have a limited amount of wood or if you only want to roast a small amount of meat, or if you want to roast meat inside, you can use a small rectangular pit oven lined with stones. You can burn the wood directly inside the oven or you can fill the oven with charcoal from the hearth and then cook the small pieces of meat or fish on skewers. Barbecuing being national past time in Serbia, I know from my own experience that a shoe box size oven full of charcoal is more than enough to roast enough meat for 10 hungry adults providing you cut your meat in thin slices and roast them on skewers. 

That is one way to use pit ovens. But we can also use pit ovens for slow cooking. To do so, we first need to light the fire inside the pit. 

We need to burn enough wood to make enough charcoal to cover the bottom of the pit. We also need to add stones into the fire while it is still burning so that they absorb the heat of the fire and get really hot. Once the fire has burned out and we only have hot coals and hot stones left at the bottom of the pit oven, we can use wooden tongs to spread the stones over the coals. The pit oven with hot charcoals covered with hot stones and ready for cooking looks like this:

If we have covered the the charcoal with flat stones, or if we are cooking big lumps of meat, food can be placed directly on stones. If we are using round stones then stones are first covered with some edible green leaves and the food is placed on the leaves. The food is then covered with more stones and or branches and leaves. Then the whole contraption is covered with earth which seals the pit and keeps the heat and moisture inside it.

The food cooked in the covered pit can take from several hours to a full day to cook, but the advantage is that the cooking process does not require any additional attention. And the cooked food is delicious.

This is a very good video showing how to make one of these primitive cooking ovens using moss instead of leaves.

Earth ovens have been used in many places and by many cultures in the past, and are still used today. 


Pit ovens were used in many areas in the past. In Central Texas there are large "burned-rock middens" apparently used for large-scale cooking. 

The Mayan pibil cooking from Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, Inka huatia cooking from Peru and Curanto cooking from Chiloé Archipelago in Chile are also examples of the similar pit oven cooking technique from central and south America. In North America we find a so called clambake, a pit oven cooking method invented by Native Americans on the Atlantic seaboard of New England which uses a pit oven dug on a beach and seaweed as stone and food cover. 

Middle East and North Africa

Earth oven cooking is sometimes used for celebratory cooking in North Africa, particularly Morocco; a whole lamb is cooked in an earth oven (called a tandir, etymologically related to the Central- and South Asian tandoor. 

Among Bedouin and Tuareg nomads a simple earth oven is used, often when men travel without family & kitchen equipment in the desert. The oven is mostly used to bake bread. The wheat or barley flour is mixed with water (and some salt) and then placed directly into the hot sands beneath the camp fire. It is then covered again by hot coal and left to bake. This bread is known as Arbut but may be known under other local names.


In Taiwan we find traditional kiln cooking which is, with Inka huatia kiln cooking and Slavic stone pile oven cooking an example of a precursor to a later kiln clay and stone ovens. In all three cooking methods a shallow fire burning pit is encased in a dome made from stones or clay pieces with a small door left on one side for lighting fire and inserting food. The fire is then lit up inside the dome in order to heat up the stones or clay from which the dome is made. When only the charcoal is left, the charcoal is removed and food is put into the dome. The dome is then collapsed onto the food and covered with soil. The food is cooked under the pile of hot stones and dirt. I will talk about these ovens in detail in my next post. This is an example of a Taiwanese clay kiln oven.

The Pacific

Earth oven cooking was very common in the past and continues into the present – particularly for special occasions, because of how labor-intensive the earth oven process was. In Melanesian Polynesian languages the general term is "umu", from the Proto-Oceanic root *qumun: e.g.; Tongan ʻumu, Māori umu or hāngi, Hawaiian imu, Sāmoan umu, Cook Island Māori umu. In some non-Polynesian, part-Polynesian and Micronesian parts of the Pacific, languages are more diverse so each language has its own term - in Fiji it is a lovo and in Rotuman it is a koua. 

In Papua New Guinea the name for the pit oven is "mumu", a word probably borrowed from Polynesian and used by Tok Pisin  and English speakers, but each of the other hundreds of local languages has its own word for pit oven.

Despite the similarities, there are many differences in the details of preparation, their cultural significance and current usage.


Murray River aborigines use clay pit ovens for cooking food. Great oven mounds made of clay can still be seen along the river. Local aborigines did most of their cooking in these clay pit ovens. The women dug a hole in the mound and set a fire in the oven hole to heat the lumps of clay. Then they swept out the fire and placed the animals and roots inside, wrapped in layers of damp grass. The hot clay lumps were placed on top and the meal was cooked in a few hours. 


The earth ovens were used from the Neolithic period onward with examples from this period found at the sites of Rinyo and Links of Notland on Orkney. Pit ovens are more commonly found in the Bronze and Iron Ages sites such as Trethellan Farm and Maiden Castle, Dorset. Examples from these periods vary in form but are generally bowl-shaped and shallow in depth (30–45 cm) with diameters between 0.5 and 2 metres. 

Also there is a possibility that the Bronze Age Irish fulacht fiadh cooking sites, at least the ones with stone lined troughs, were used for pit cooking and not for boiling. I will write a whole post about fulachts. They are extremely interesting and important.

The pit cooking method is thought not to be common in Europe today. The only two examples are Cretan kleftiko ("thief style") cooking, and peka or sač ("under the bell") cooking which is found in the Slavic countries of the Balkans. Kleftiko involves wrapping the food in clay and cooking in a covered pit with charcoal. In the Balkans the pit oven cooking evolved into slaw cooking inside of a fired clay dish heated on charcoal (pit),  under a fired clay (now days also cast iron) bell shaped baking lid covered with hot coals. 

Peka or sač is basically a portable transportable clay pit oven. You can cook anything inside it: bread, meat, whole meals. As far as I know this type of cooking is unique to the Balkans. I will dedicate a whole post to this type of cooking as it is extremely important for understanding cultural continuity on the Balkans. 

This is all I have to say about that (pit ovens). Hungry anyone?

I believe that one of the most important human discoveries was accidentally made during the construction and use of these pit ovens. During the construction of a pit oven, once the hole is dug in the ground, it needs to be smoothed so that it doesn't crumble when it is used. So wet hands are used to smooth the pit walls. At some stage in the past people digging the hole for the pit oven must have by chance dug a hole in clay. If the pit was dug into clay, the smoothed pit walls will very much resemble unbaked clay pot walls. Once the fire is lit at the bottom of the clay pit, because the heat is concentrated inside the pit and into the walls, the clay walls will get fired. So by accident people would have ended up with a pit oven whose walls were made of a thin fired clay, ceramic layer. People would have soon realized that the walls of these clay pit ovens don't crumble and that they heat up well and retain heat for a long time, just like stones. And that if you make a small fire burn constantly at the bottom of the clay pit oven, then you can stick things like bread patties, to the walls of the pit where they would get cooked quickly and evenly. In the center of the below picture  you can see a 19th century example of this type of a primitive dug in clay oven from Kermanshah area of Iran. These ovens were used for both heating and cooking. Women on the picture are making breads.

The central Asian tandoor oven, used primarily for uncovered, live-fire baking and grilling, is essentially a permanent pit oven made out of clay or firebrick with a constantly burning, very hot fire at the bottom.

The tandoor was brought to India from Persia via the Afghanis. There is also evidence that tandoor was present to India as far back as 3000 BC as there have been small mud plastered ovens similar to tandoor found in Indus valley civilization sites of  Kalibangan and Banawali

In Armenia we find a version of tandoor oven called tanir. Tonir was worshiped by the Armenians as a sun symbol and it is known as a "sun in the ground".

Remember our lucky pit oven builders who dug their pit in clay? They would also have noticed that if the rain filled the fired clay pit, the water would remain inside the pit and would not dry through water seeping and absorption into the walls, and the walls would not get soggy and would not crumble. If one of people using the clay pit oven stood by mistake on the edge of a cool clay pit oven and broke the edge of the oven off, he would have noticed that the bit that was broken off was hard like a stone. What do you think, how long it would have taken for someone to made a clay figurine and throw it into a pit oven to see what happens? Is this what happened in Dolní Věstonice site dated to 24,000 BC, where the earliest objects made of ceramic, thousands of fired clay figurines, depicting human and animal forms were found? The most famous of these figurines is the so called "Venus from Dolni Vestonice".

This is the clay structure found in Dolni Vestonice. The figurines were found lying around it. 

This was interpreted as originally being this type of clay oven:

Doesn't it look like a covered cooking pit? Or a clay cooking pit turned on its side? There are actually some clay and stone cooking methods which can be regarded as direct precursors of these types of clay ovens. I will talk about them in my next post.This is a bread oven from Serbia still used in the 20th century. Do you see any similarity between the above "kiln" and this "bread oven"?

Archaeologists suggest that it is this type of clay oven that was used for pottery firing in Dolne Velstolnice. This is quite possible. The thing is we don't even need this type of oven to fire pottery. You can use plain and simple cooking pits to achieve this. We know they used cooking pits for cooking mammoth meat. These pits are perfectly capable of firing pottery as well.
How to pit fire pottery by Mike Pewtherer

This is an example of a Japanese pit fired pottery:
Pit Fire pottery by Ryo Mikami

These are ery good videos showing how pit firing of pottery is done. 

Pit fired pottery video 1
Pit fired pottery video 2
Pit fired pottery video 3

Pit fired pottery video 4

So the pit firing method works. In the Japanese example you can see the circular wall which creates over ground pit. Doesn't it look very much like the clay structure found in Dolni Vestonice?

No pots or utensils were found on the sites of this culture. So how long do you think it took before someone realized that the same principle of baking clay in pit ovens can be used for a baking clay dishes? Well according to the archaeological data it only took about 8,000 years... But I believe that development thought process involved was the one I just described. I believe that this exactly how clay kiln and production of ceramic were invented. The reason why it took 8,000 year to get from fired clay figurines to fired clay pots was that until the first settled acorn eating cultures developed in the northern hemisphere, people did not have any practical need for making clay pots. But once people settled and started cooking acorn porridge, a need arose for a waterproof and fire proof container that could be used for cooking liquid food. Enter fired clay pit oven, a waterproof and fire proof container, a sort of a dug in clay pot. And from here all you need is to follow the above discovery steps and you end up with this, pottery from acorn eating Yomon culture dated to about 12,000 BC. 

Now people had portable fired clay pits that they could move around, and use for cooking. I will talk about the development of pottery in detail in one of my next posts. 

Have fun, Stay happy and healthy.


  1. True Italian brick ovens have been around since the beginning of time and the birth of culinary preparation, it seems. They date back as far as the ancient Roman Empire, and remnants have been found of these rustic tools, particularly in ancient Pompeii. Archeologists and researchers have determined that some of these relics could even be used today, and with little repair or restoration. This fact attests to the durability and reliability of ancient brick ovens, as well as the painstaking craftsmanship of the artisans who created them. Today, these professional-grade tools are still considered reliable and necessary in contemporary homes where pizza making is somewhat of an art form.

  2. amazing thanks so much for your effort!

  3. Nice work! When I pit-cook food and I do that a few times per year over the past 25 years, I use stones heated to red hot in a nearby fire, then I layer the pit as follows (bottom of the pit to top):
    1- Hot rocks
    2- layer of soil just covering rocks
    3- grasses
    4- food (corn, turkey, fish etc)
    5-Optional - gridwork of sticks
    6- grasses
    7-layer of soil
    8-hot rocks
    9- layer of soil

    When I remove the top layers to get to the food, I can grab the grid and simply lift it like a lid (with the grass in it), this is a two person job and workable only after most of the soil and top layer of rocks have been removed first with a shovel.
    Cooking this way has a turkey done in 3 hours at the most, but there's no such thing as overcooking in this method since its all moist and steamy :)

  4. Great article.