Saturday, 26 April 2014

Beakers were for Beer! part three: alewives and barmaids

In the early years of my research, I visited a few microbreweries. I wanted to talk to professional brewers who made ale in the traditional way using crushed malt, not malt extract, and who worked on a small scale. This approach to brewing beer in small batches, supplying local pubs, hotels and restaurants, began to take off in the 1980s and 1990s. The interest in real ale in Britain began with CAMRA in 1971. Peter Brown does a good job in telling the story of the rise of craft beer UK style. Worth reading. Anyway, to get back to my story, one of the microbreweries I visited was a tiny establishment, equipped with one mash tun, one boiler and two fermenters. He used crushed malted barley, hops, water and yeast and made a wide variety of beers from these basic ingredients. As any good brewer does.

He was interested in the story of the Bronze Age woman buried in a stone cist at North Mains, Strathallan. She had been buried with a Food Vessel. The residue from a cereal based alcoholic brew, flavoured with meadowsweet, was discovered within it (see part one). We chatted about it in detail, and with some excitement, because I had only just found out about the residue analysis in the Strathallan pot myself. That evening, he went down to the pub and related the story to his mates. And why not? It's a good story. One of his mates was a journalist for the local paper. A couple of days later there was a headline "Bronze Age Barmaid" or "Prehistoric Barmaid discovered" or something along those lines. And my name was attached to it, almost as if I had discovered it. Many of the details were wrong. It was only a small piece in a local newspaper, but it seemed like sensational stuff at the time. Some folk at the University were not very pleased about it.

I had just had my first encounter with The Press, and with some of the silliness that seems to surround any news story about ancient alcoholic brews - beer, wine or mead. 

alewives and cup bearers 
Maybe that journalist was thinking along the right lines, although 'barmaid' is not quite the right word to use in a prehistoric context. There is a well established tradition of women as cup bearers, providing the drink at feasts.

Eva Koch, writing in 1986, gives several archaeological and historical examples of the woman as hostess, who would have held a high status position within society. In her article the woman with the drink she describes the grave at Juellinge of a woman, in her 30s, who was buried wearing her silver jewellery and hair ornaments. In the grave with her was some meat, either a whole sheep or pieces of pork and beef - archaeological sources vary. The bronze bucket had contained a drink brewed with barley and cranberries or crowberries and bog myrtle. There were drinking horns and glasses for her guests. The grave was excavated in 1909. 

A recent detailed analysis of these residues has led to the novel idea that the Juellinge vessel had contained 'nordic grog'. The media loved this story. There are variations of it all over the internet, but journalists don't always get all the details right. I don't agree with the concept of a 'nordic grog'. I think it is far more likely that the bucket contained an ale, or perhaps you could call it a barley wine, made from wort and flavoured with a few berries, flowers, herbs and maybe some honey. All the sugars that you need for fermentation can be obtained from the mash tun, as I explained in earlier posts.

There are many similarities between the Juellinge grave and the burial of the young woman, described by some as a dancing woman or priestess, at Egtved.
Egtved Girl tomb from bronze age- Denmark
reconstruction of the oak log coffin of the Egtved Girl. Bronze Age. 1370BC

She was buried wearing bronze jewellery and the bucket at her feet contained the remains of an ale or beer, flavoured with berries and perhaps honey. The bucket was made of birch bark and is too big for a drinking vessel. It is more suitable for serving or perhaps it was one of the vessels used in making the ale. One interpretation is that she was buried with ale for the journey into the afterlife, which is certainly possible. I can't help wondering whether she was buried with the tools of her trade - her brewing bucket.

And so we move on to Bronze Age Scotland and the cist grave excavated in 1979 - the one that the brewer was so interested in. The Bronze Age barmaid herself, buried with her Food Vessel. Could she have been a cup bearer, at feasts and ceremonies, perhaps? Maybe she was an alewife. Some might see her as a priestess or as one of the elite, a high status and important member of society. There are several possible interpretations of who this Bronze Age woman was and what her role in society could have been.

http://i.rcahms.gov.uk/canmore/l/SC00845100.jpg
female cist burial excavated in 1979 at Strathallan, North Mains, SC845100. (copyright Historic Scotland)
The specialist secrets, skills and knowledge of how to transform harvested grain into ale by malting, mashing, lautering, sparging and fermentation were as important then as they are now. Without them, there would be no ale or beer for the feast.

I'm sure that the tradition of the alewife, or brewster, goes right back to prehistoric times, to the earliest grain cultivators and processors, the neolithic folk. There are many different herbs and plants that have been used to flavour, preserve or enhance ale. Known today as gruit, some herbs have medicinal or hallucinogenic properties. Henbane pollen was identified in cereal based residues on sherds from large bucket shaped neolithic pottery known as Grooved Ware at a site called Balfarg in Scotland. More on this in the next post. This discovery extends the potential role of the alewife to that of a healer, maybe even more than that. Here's a link to a blog about the 'brewster as witch' by Jane Peyton, a sommelier and beer expert. Her article is a bit of an advert for a Ninkasi style women's brewing competition that took place in 2011. So, sadly, too late for me to make a brew for that. But she makes some interesting points.

I shall return to the 'magic of brewing' in a later post. It's a huge topic.

beakers, food vessels and tripartite urns - some brief notes
Welcome to the wonderful world of prehistoric pottery! It can be quite bewildering. Confusing to non archaeologists, at the very least. I have discovered this after many years of explaining (or trying to explain) prehistoric pottery classifications to tourists.

In a British Bronze Age context, there are beakers, collared urns, tripartite food vessels and funerary urns. Simply explained - beakers were drinking vessels. Food Vessels, otherwise known as tripartite food vessels, appear to have had no specific function, other than for 'food preparation'. This is how they are described in the archaeological literature.

Sometimes they are found in stone cists and they contained the cremated bone. Collared urns are larger vessels, also often found with cremated bone in burials. This is a blog. It is not an academic thesis. So I must apologise to all archaeological pottery specialists for the simplicity of these descriptions.

a few recent rather exciting discoveries of tripartite food vessels
In March 2012, the land owner of a disused quarry on the island of Arran, off the west coast of Scotland, noticed something interesting in the cliff face. It turned out to be not one, but two Bronze Age stone burial cists. One cist was empty and the other contained the remains of an adult human cremation in a tripartite food vessel and a flint knife.

A photo of a circular, sand-coloured Bronze Age pot against a black background
the food vessel
A photo of a large yellow digger on wheels carrying out work on a steep cliff face
an unusual excavation technique at Sannox Cliff, Arran

















A radiocarbon date of 2154 - 2026 BC was obtained. The flint knife, when analysed, had traces of silica, indicating that it had been used to cut grasses or cereals. This is intriguing. Was this the cist grave of someone, probably a woman, whose work involved the gathering and the processing of wheat or barley? I think so. It's not the sort of thing that is found every day. Excavation techniques involved the use of a cherry picker. A news report with some great photos, is here. The excavation was undertaken by GUARD Archaeology, Glasgow and is available here.

In September 2011, in Spinningdale, by the Dornoch Firth in Sutherland, northern Scotland, the accidental discovery of a very well preserved Bronze Age female cist burial, with food vessel, occurred when someone was digging the hole for their new septic tank. Once again, it was excavated by the team at GUARD. Radiocarbon dates from the bone were 2051 -1911 BC and from the charcoal within the grave, dates of 2151-2018 BC were obtained. Inside the cist was female skeleton with a tripartite food vessel at her head.
The Spinningdale cist burial. Image: GUARD Archaeology Limited
the Spinningdale cist burial - photo by GUARD Archaeology
She was between 35 and 50 years old and had been laid upon a sheepskin, or maybe she wore woollen clothing. It is not quite clear, but unusually, fragments of the wool had survived in the well sealed cist. The excavators thought she may have been an important woman, having been buried with such great care and attention. More details here.

The cist grave of another high status, important and wealthy Bronze Age woman was recently excavated near Windsor, England. Excavations at the Kingsmead Quarry, undertaken by Wessex Archaeology, were presented to the public in 2013. They have put a lot of their information online. It is a large, complex site that includes mesolithic, neolithic, bronze age, iron age, Romano British and medieval elements. The excavations were generously funded by CEMEX. The archaeologists have been digging up lots of really exciting stuff at Horton and you can read all about it on their web site.

Of particular interest is the female burial, dated to between 2500 and 2200 BC. She was at least 35 years old, according to bone evidence. She was buried wearing her necklace of gold, amber and black lignite beads. She may also have had a bracelet, since there were black lignite beads near her wrist. Some perforated amber beads or buttons indicate that she may have worn woolen clothing, with these valuable fasteners. By her side was a large drinking vessel, beaker style. Was this a serving vessel, rather than her personal beaker? It must be considered a possibility. It would be fantastic if a residue analysis could be done of the vessel fabric. I don't think this has yet been done.

938
she was an important woman in Bronze Age Britain - some say she was a princess or even a queen.
This reconstruction drawing above, taken from the Wessex Archaeology pages, gives us an idea of what she might have looked like. We cannot be completely sure of her full role within society, whether she was a princess, queen, alewife or cup bearer. It is clear that she was a woman of some importance. In the words of the site director, Gareth Chaffey, who has been excavating the site for seven years, " It is interesting to think who this woman was within her community. She was probably an important person in her society, perhaps holding some standing which gave her access to prestigious, rare and exotic items. She could have been a leader, a person with power and authority or possibly part of an elite family - perhaps a princess or a queen."


I shall leave the mysterious women of the Bronze Age, for now. I am sure you will come to your own conclusions about them.


Site Director Gareth Chaffey, of Wessex Archaeology, who has been excavating the site for the last seven years, said: “It is interesting to think who this woman was within her community. She was probably an important person in her society, perhaps holding some standing which gave her access to prestigious, rare and exotic items. She could have been a leader, a person with power and authority, or possibly part of an elite family - perhaps a princess or queen.” - See more at: http://www.wessexarch.co.uk/blogs/news/2013/04/19/beaker-burial#sthash.uX7GzXBU.dpuf
Site Director Gareth Chaffey, of Wessex Archaeology, who has been excavating the site for the last seven years, said: “It is interesting to think who this woman was within her community. She was probably an important person in her society, perhaps holding some standing which gave her access to prestigious, rare and exotic items. She could have been a leader, a person with power and authority, or possibly part of an elite family - perhaps a princess or queen.” - See more at: http://www.wessexarch.co.uk/blogs/news/2013/04/19/beaker-burial#sthash.uX7GzXBU.dpuf