Monday 1 January 2018

some sort of alcohol

Stonehenge at midwinter - a time for feasts source

Midwinter. It's a good time to think about feasts, festivals and family gatherings.

Seasonal celebrations at the turn of the year are a long-standing tradition, whether your new year starts with the Midwinter Solstice, as mine does, or whether you prefer New Year's Eve at midnight on December 31st. Most archaeologists and anthropologists would agree that feasts have been an important and significant part of life in the past. People have been feasting together for thousands of years. Anthropologist Brian Hayden has asked Why do people feast? He reckons that in the past feasts were important as a display of power and strength. They also played a role in social support networks. It all makes good common sense. Recent discoveries at Hilazon Tachtit seem to suggest that ritual feasting coincided with the earliest agriculturalists of the Ancient Near East. These people were gathering and processing the wild cereal grains, such as wheat and barley.

"Twelve thousand years ago humans were still hunter-gatherers, subsisting entirely on wild foods. Nevertheless, these people differed from those who went before – they were sitting on the brink of the transition to agriculture, one of the most significant economic, social and ideological transformations in human history.  Sickle blades and grinding stones used to harvest and process cereal grains are found at Hilazon Tachtit and other contemporary archaeological sites. These findings indicate that these ritual feasts started around the same time that people adopted agriculture. When people began to rely more heavily on wild cereals like wheat and barley, they became increasingly tethered to landscapes that were ever more crowded and began to settle into more permanent communities. In other words, feasting became a part of their life, once they moved away from nomadic life."

What were they doing with the grain?

We know that people were drinking some sort of alcohol at these ancient feasts. Maybe it was not an obligatory thing. Perhaps there were some non alcoholic beverages also available. It is, however, generally agreed and understood that some sort of alcohol was made and consumed. Most of the discussion in the anthropological and archaeological literature focuses on the significance of drinking alcohol and its' social aspects. There's not much on the technicalities and details of how they made it.

That's the bit that interests me. How did they make it? What were the ingredients?

Most importantly, what was the recipe, what were the techniques and what equipment was used?

Different sorts of alcohol have been and are consumed all over the world. If you want an easy-to-read summary of recent academic ideas about alcohol and feasting in the past, have a look at Booze! in the February 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine. This article is a brief overview of current thinking and ongoing research into ancient alcohol. It covers a lot of ground, from rice wine in China to ancient Sumerian beer as well as chicha and grape juice. The underlying premise is that

"alcohol isn't just a mind altering drink:it has been a prime mover of human culture from the beginning, fueling the development of arts, language and religion" 

I'd agree with that. 

But there are some things in this National Geographic article that I don't agree with. Some inaccuracies about malt. There's that often made mistake about what ancient malt was. Here it is described as 'sprouted toasted barley grain' and this seems to be a standard description of ancient malt in much of the archaeological and anthropological literature. 

Malt is frequently described as toasted roasted sprouted grain. This is true only of modern specialty malts which have been germinated, then roasted at high temperatures. Specialty malts include amber malts, crystal malts and chocolate malts. They date from the Industrial Revolution, not the Neolithic Revolution. Maltsters began to make the specialty roasted malts when coke supplanted the traditional straw or wood as the fuel for drying malt. Why? Because the new coke-dried pale malt did not give the colour to the beer that everyone was accustomed to. That is a huge story in itself.

The main kind of malt that has been made for thousands of years is base malt, the one that provides all of the fermentable sugars in the mash tun. Base malt must be dried very carefully in order to keep the spirit of the grain alive. We now understand the science involved in the partial germination of grain, that this careful and slow drying of the malt preserves enzymes that convert starch into sugar. Maltsters have known how to do this for generations, as described in Henry Stopes' book, Malt and Malting (1885).

What were they drinking at feasts in Neolithic Britain?
Recently I spoke to a pottery specialist, one of the archaeologists at the Ness of Brodgar, an important Neolithic ceremonial site on the mainland of Orkney. I asked this question. What were they drinking at the feasts? I was told that, of course we know they were drinking some sort of alcohol. And with that, there was an end to further discussion. They walked away. Although there is a lot written about this fabulous excavation on the internet, they do not seem to be addressing the issue of what sort of alcohol they may have been drinking at the feasts and celebrations that they say took place regularly at this place, 5000 years ago.

I've been reading the promotional and educational material from the latest exhibition at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre. It's called Feast! But sadly, for some reason, they have also decided to ignore the question of what sort of alcohol they were making and drinking at Durrington Walls in Neolithic Britain. The exhibition Feast! deals only with the food aspect of feasting. With minimal evidence for cereal processing found during excavations, they say that porridge was made. They even mention, in the publicity material, that the neolithic folk were feeding their pigs with honey to fatten them up. This, apparently, explains the archaeological discovery of caried pig teeth at Durrington Walls. Feeding the pigs spent grain is a far more likely reason.

for more about this photo see here: English Heritage

Making malt and ale are not considered as possibilities in this Stonehenge exhibition. Nor is it considered in interpretations at the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney.

I don't understand why. There is so much in the academic literature about the importance of the consumption of alcoholic beverages in past societies, particularly at feasts, celebrations and communal gatherings.

There was only one suitable source of fermentable sugars plentiful enough to provide feast grade alcohol for large gatherings at these neolithic feasts. That was the cereal grain that they grew. Barley and wheat can easily be transformed into sugars for fermentation into ale by the straightforward processes of malting and mashing.

Cereals are usually considered to have been a staple crop in the Neolithic. They are more likely to have been a status crop, for their potential to be made into malt sugars, wort and ale.


Interested in ancient malt and ale? Our published papers and my thesis "Barley Malt and Ale in the Neolithic" (2004) can be read and downloaded from my new Researchgate page. see here


  1. I'd like to start a campaign to stop calling the Beaker People "Beaker People" (it appears to be a false-friend mistranslation of the German "Becher") and start calling them the Mug People, thus emphasising the beeriness ...

    1. Thank you for this Martyn! I would not prevent any campaign that brought back the completely reasonable idea that these bronze age drinking pots were used for the consumption of beer. Also some of the grooved ware pots. It is rather sad, for example, that the Achavanich Beaker has been downgraded recently. In the first pollen analysis by Moffatt the pollen residues were interpreted as the remains of a "cereal based alcoholic beverage" aka beer. Now it has been re analysed by Scott Timpany of the Orkney College and they say it's probably just background pollen.