Saturday 29 March 2014

Beakers were for Beer! part one: ale, mead & residues

Beakers were for beer. I was told this back in 1995, in my final year as an archaeology undergraduate. There was absolutely no doubt about this, or so it seemed at the time. I made a note to look further into the idea. This was when my interest in ancient brewing techniques began. I had never thought about it before, but, being married to a home brewer of fine ales, made from all grain, I was intrigued. He would carry a 25 kilogram sack of crushed malt from the Brewing Supplies shop into the house, and then after about a week, he would have made us some excellent beer. A 25 kilo sack of malt would make 4 brews of 8 or 9 gallons each. Yes, I'm mixing Imperial and Metric but I am not bothered about that. The point is that you can make plenty of beer from 25 kilos of malt.

How did those Bronze Age folk, living in Britain around 4000 years ago, make their beer? I asked several people in the Archaeology Department but nobody seemed to know. They all thought I was crazy, looking for the archaeological evidence of beer brewing. You won't find anything, they said.

A paper was cited by the lecturer: Burgess and Shennan: The Beaker Phenomenon: some suggestions. It had been presented at a conference "Settlement and economy in the third and second millennia BC" and the proceedings were published in 1976 as a British Archaeological Report (BAR 33). It is cited in dozens, if not hundreds of academic bibliographies about the Bronze Age of the British Isles. It has become a classic paper, but it is not easy to find unless you have access to a University Library. That is to say that I have not managed to find access to a copy online.

One of the arguments of the paper was that Beakers were made specially for the drinking of beer. They proposed that a warrior cult existed in Bronze Age Britain, with some people buried with grave goods that reflected their prestige, high status and lifestyle. Grave goods often included a drinking vessel - a finely made and decorated pottery 'beaker' from which they drank their beer. No archaeological evidence, such as residue analysis, was presented in the paper.

The Amesbury Archer, referred to by the media as the 'King' of Stonehenge was considered to have been an important person and someone of high status, since he was buried with lots of grave goods, including five fine beakers, gold jewellery, the equipment for making metal and a slate wrist guard that hints at his prowess with a bow and arrows.
beaker from Hemp Knoll, Avebury

If beakers were for beer, then what is the archaeological evidence? Did it taste like the beer that we drink today? Who made it? Were the brewers men or women? What's the story?

Strictly speaking, when referring to prehistoric brewing from cereals, it should be called ale, not beer. What's the difference? Ale and beer are both made from malted grain - barley, wheat, oats or rye. Ale is preserved and flavoured with a variety of herbs, such as bog myrtle, heather, yarrow, juniper or meadowsweet. Beer is flavoured with hops which were introduced to the brewing process only recently, in medieval times. Spices can also be used. Today, we tend to use the terms 'ale' and 'beer' fairly indiscriminately.

For anyone interested in ancient ale, the discovery of cereal based residues on old pots has to be one of the most exciting things. Research was very different in those days. In the late 1990s the internet was in its' infancy. Internet search engines were a rare and wonderful thing, to be accessed by a few lucky academics. Charles Mount has written about how University research has changed over the last 20 years here. He is writing about University College Dublin, but the story is the same throughout UK Universities.

So, for me, my first research involved going to the John Rylands Library, looking through the card index systems, finding archaeology journals and reading lots of excavation reports. I spent many hours doing this. I started with the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, fondly known as the PSAS (now available online). It is an excellent resource. I soon stumbled on excavation reports that had some intriguing descriptions of cereal based residues on pottery, together with a detailed pollen analysis. Just what I was looking for.

cereal based residues on pottery
A couple of years after the Burgess and Shennan paper was published, a discovery was made in Fife, Scotland, that supported their thesis that beakers were for beer drinking in the Bronze Age. 

In 1978, excavations by a team led by Gordon Barclay at the site of a timber circle, bank and ditch (c2330 ± 60BC) at North Mains, Strathallan, Scotland, revealed several cist burials  In one of these, a female cist burial, there was a fine, complete Food Vessel with a deposit of organic material still adhering to the inner surface of the pot, after thousands of years. It was described as a 'black greasy material on the internal surfaces'. Such discoveries are extremely  rare.

The cist was situated in the centre of the timber circle. Fortunately, it had remained partially sealed, hence the unusual survival of the organic material. Analysis of the residues revealed high percentages of cereal pollen and meadowsweet pollen. It was interpreted as being the probable remains of a cereal based fermented drink. The radiocarbon date was 1540 ± 65BC. The analysis (below) is on pages 178 to 180 of the excavation report in PSAS Volume 113. The details are important and of interest to any all grain brewer. The 'human interference' that has introduced charcoal to and that is referred to might be the drying of malted grain, rather than parching harvested grain.

There is a Table on page 179 which gives the details and percentages of the pollen finds. Of course, I recommend reading the whole report, which can be downloaded from the PSAS website. That is because I really like to read the original excavation reports rather than secondhand interpretations. It is almost like being there! The descriptions of the pottery finds (between pages 155 and 163) are also informative.

When I showed this pollen analysis to my husband he said 'I can make that. I just need to replace the hops with some meadowsweet flowers.' And so our research into recreating ancient ales began.

Burial B was accompanied by a food vessel (SF17), discovered lying on its side by the skull. Within the pot a small deposit of black greasy material was found. As the analysis of material within vessels has proved valuable (Dickson 1978) samples of this deposit and scrapings from the pot wall were subjected to pollen analysis. 


Part of the black greasy material was used for the preparation of two pollen samples and another sample was scraped from the inner fabric of the pot. All samples were treated with hydrogen fluoride to remove the silaceous component and were subsequently subjected to Erdtman's acetolysis. Microscope slides were then prepared using glycerol jel as an embedding medium.

High percentages of Filipendula (meadowsweet) pollen (74-1 %, 77-8%, 84% (scraping)) and relatively high percentages of cerealia pollen were noted. There was also a large proportion of charcoal fragments. Within the Filipendula grains there was a wide range of variation in the states of preservation. The well preserved type is the tricolpate micro echinate pollen in which the pores are clearly pouting. The very corroded type lacks the characteristic pores but the wall structure is not affected. Immature pollen was also present. Relatively high proportions of Filipendula can be attributed in part to selective corrosion as Filipendula has a relatively thick wall but this could not explain the 74-1-84% found in these samples.

Cereals are self pollinating, the result being that little pollen is dispersed into the air. The anthers remain within the spikelets so that on the fully grown cereal pollen grains could still be present, though most would be lost during the winnowing process. Compared with the other species the cereals are over represented in both samples. This is probably the result of human interference. The charcoal in the samples might have originated in the processing of the grain (eg roasting to remove chaff), however the cereal pollen were not burnt and this therefore seems unlikely. The charcoal may also have found its way into the pot during the burial ritual or have been in the pot already, perhaps as the result of firing a new vessel for the burial. The remaining pollen almost certainly came accidentally into the food vessel and represented a part of the contemporary pollen rain. The presence of pollen of plants flowering at different times of the year (eg Corylus March-April, Polypodium August-September) might be explained by the addition of pollen-bearing water to whatever was contained in the vessel or its incorporation in the manufacture of the contents.

Dickson (1978) in his analysis of the Ashgrove beaker scrapings discovered very high proportions of Tilia and Filipendula and concluded that the vessel had contained lime honey or mead flavoured with meadowsweet. The North Mains food vessel contained neither lime pollen nor sufficient pollen from other honey-producing plants. The 2-4-3-7% of Compositae pollen were not sufficient for a honey based on Compositae alone. The high proportion of cereal pollen grains might suggest either a porridge of cereals (eg frumenty) or a fermented ale, flavoured with meadowsweet flowers or extract. The name 'meadow-sweet' originates from mead-sweet as it was used to flavour mead and other drinks. It is distinctly possible therefore that the North Mains food vessel contained a fermented drink.

the Ashgrove beaker
Mention is made of the Ashgrove Beaker. This was found in an excavation of a Bronze Age cist burial by Audrey Henshall and was published in Antiquity in 1963. As well as the skeleton and a beaker, there was also a fine dagger. It seemed that the pot had fallen over, spilling its' contents on the floor of the cist. James Dickson analysed the residues in the 1970s and he also published his results in Antiquity.

Pollen analysis revealed large amounts of immature lime pollen and meadowsweet pollen, which was interpreted as the remains of mead but sadly, it was not radiocarbon-dated. Nor did they look for cereal residues. Ian Hornsey discusses the implications of this discovery in his book, The History of Beer.

my first article

These discoveries, and others, led me to write my first article about the archaeology of ancient ale, towards the end of 1996. Descriptions of residues on Grooved Ware pottery from the neolithic site of Balfarg are very similar to those found on Beaker pottery. It was beginning to look as if making ale from the grain was a Neolithic, not a Bronze Age phenomenon.

I was very pleased and proud to be the cover girl for BA19 and I have Simon Denison, the then editor of British Archaeology, to thank for that. He was interested in my work and very supportive.

The picture shows the Strathallan or North Mains food vessel, with meadowsweet flowers surrounding it. These flowers would have been the flavouring and preservative for the ale, the base of which would have been a wort made from crushed malted cereal - barley and/or wheat.
Finding Magic in Stone Age Ale - my first article - you can read it here.

That's all for this blog - more than enough for you to be getting on with. I find it odd that in 2014, particularly in the UK, there seems to be a taboo surrounding any discussion by archaeologists of malt and ale in prehistory.

The evidence is there, if you know and understand what the brewing process is and what you have to look for in the archaeological record.

... my next blog will be about the Egtved Girl's Brew, the residues of which were found in a birch bark bucket in her oak log coffin in Denmark ... there are some details here.

Please get in touch with me if you have made a beer based upon these residues, if you know of someone who has or if you have been lucky enough to taste one of these brews.

I know about the 'Nordic Grog' made by Dogfish Head Brewery, under the guidance of Professor Pat McGovern. It was recently marketed as Kvasir, named after a Nordic Princess. 

I want to hear about any real home brewers who have had a go at recreating it.


further reading
Burgess, C. & Shennan, S. 1976. The Beaker Phenomenon: some suggestions. In Burgess, C Miket, R. (eds.)  Settlement and economy in the third and second millennia BC : papers delivered at a conference organised by the Department of Adult Education, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, B.A.R 33, Oxford, 309-331.

Barclay, G. (1984a) 'Sites of the third millenium BC to the first millenium AD at North Mains, Strathallan, Perthshire', Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Vol.113

Dickson, J. 1978 'Bronze age mead', Antiquity, 52 (1978), 108-13.



  1. Excellent post! As a 'memoir of academic research' it's a beautiful read - I feel that I know both you and the subject matter better as a result! I look forward to reading & discovering more!

    1. Thanks! :-) This is exactly why I am doing a retrospective blog. So folk can see how I stumbled upon it all. Next blog is on its' way!

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