Chinese archeologists have found an ancient fruit cellar containing well-preserved apricot and melon seeds from more than 3,000 years ago in today's Shaanxi Province.
The cellar was a rectangular pit about 105 cm long, 80 cm wide and 205 cm deep, said Dr. Sun Zhouyong, a researcher with the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archeology.
Sun and his colleagues found the pit in 2002, about 70 cm underground the Zhouyuan site, ruins of Western Zhou dynasty (1046-771 BC) 100 km from Xi'an. After eight years of research, they concluded it was a cellar used to preserve fruits for aristocrats.
In each corner of the pit, Sun and his colleagues found a little round hole. "We assume the cellar had something like a shade that was fixed on the four holes but had decayed over the years."
Inside the cellar the researcher could see, even with naked eye, huge piles of nuts and seeds.
"We sorted them out with care, and found about 500 apricot nuts -- 108 of which were complete with carbonized pulp, at least 150 melon seeds and 10 plum seeds," said Sun.
They also found millet and grass seeds.
"Most of the seeds were intact and very few were carbonized," said Sun. "It was so amazing that scientists who conducted lab work suspected they were actually put away by rodents in more recent times."
Sun and his colleagues sent three apricot nuts to Beta Analytic in Florida, the United states, last year for carbon 14 test to determine their age.
"The test results indicated they were about 3,000 years old, dating back to a period between 1380 B.C. and 1120 B.C.," said Sun. "Seemingly the fruits had been stored in an acidic and dry environment, so dehydration was extremely slow and the nuts were not carbonized even after so many centuries."
Zhouyuan site, where the cellar was unearthed, was believed to be a dwelling place for Duke Danfu, an early leader of the Zhou clan. It was known as the cradle of the Western Zhou Dynasty, one of the earliest periods of China's written history.
"Presumably, the aristocrats had stored fruits in their family cellar," said Sun.
The cellar, with roughly 1.7 cubic meters of storage, could store up to 100 kilograms of fruits, he said.
The Book of Rites, a Chinese history book compiled in the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC-9), put melons, apricots, plums and peaches among the 31 categories of food favored by aristocrats of the time. It said people in the Zhou Dynasty had also learned to grow fruit trees in orchards.
A poem in the "Book of Songs", a collection of poetry from the Western Zhou Dynasty (11th century -771 BC) to the Spring and Autumn Period (770 - 475 BC), says food kept in "ling yin" -- meaning cool places -- will stay fresh for three days in the summer.
Before the fruit cellar was reported, archeologists in Shaanxi Province found a primitive "icebox" that dated back at least 2,000 years ago in the ruins of a temporary imperial residence of the Qin Dynasty (221 BC - 207 BC).
The "icebox", in the shape of a shaft 1.1 meters in diameter and 1.6 meters tall, was unearthed about 3 meters underground in the residence.