Thursday 20 August 2020

pieces from my thesis #1: the introduction

The previous couple of blogs, the land of milk and honey and the origin of grain agriculture: some thoughts, were written by the brewer with me doing the editing. I must admit that I couldn't resist adding a little bit of archaeological detail here and there. His theme was the origin of grain agriculture in the ancient Near East and Levant in the epi Palaeolithic over twenty thousand years ago. How did these hunter gatherers of the Fertile Crescent learn how to make malt? What happened?

The idea that they were eating the green and unripe grain first and that they gradually learned how to process the ripe grains into malt and malt sugars is his idea. Not mine. It's a new aspect to our investigation of how the art and craft of making malt and ale from the grain began.

I submitted my M.Phil thesis "Barley, Malt and Ale in the Neolithic" to the University of Manchester in 1999. It was published in 2004, by invitation, as a BAR (British Archaeological Report S1213) and is now out of print. I've heard that the BAR publishing people are in the process of reprinting some of the old ones, mine included. I look forward to that. 

We stand on the shoulders of giants. Here's some of the inspiration for my research: the Braidwood "Bread/Beer debate in the 1950s and his team's extensive excavations in the hilly flanks of the Zagros mountains. Also, the excellent paper on 'Bread and Beer: the early use of cereals in the human diet' by Katz and Voigt (1986) and an article published in Archaeology in 1991 by Katz and Maytag "Brewing an Ancient Beer". Delwen Samuel's recreation of an ancient Egyptian beer made the news in 1996 and this was another reason why I began investigating the topic of ancient beer brewing techniques. 

I particularly like John Tyndall's investigations and remarks on fermentation and the brewing process. His work continued the research of Louis Pasteur. The explanations of the biochemistry of the malting and brewing processes by Dave Line were invaluable.

Sometimes people tell me that I should write a book. I already have. I've also been told that many people only read the introduction and the conclusion of academic publications. So here, for your interest and enjoyment, is something I wrote earlier:


“Our prehistoric fathers may have been savages, but they were clever and observant ones ... the art and practice of the brewer are founded on empirical observation ... the brewer learnt from long experience the conditions not the reasons for success”
John Tyndall, extracts from his speech on Fermentation  Glasgow Science Lectures Association
October 19th 1876

Grain in prehistoric diet

The preparation and consumption of food and drink are important aspects of prehistory that can provide a valuable insight into the daily lives of people in past societies. The introduction of the cultivation of grain in the Near East and the spread of the agricultural lifestyle across Europe and into the British Isles was a great change in the lives and habits of Mesolithic people. It is one of the most important changes to have occurred in prehistory. After millennia of subsistence activities based on hunting, gathering and fishing people began to cultivate and therefore to have control over a variety of crops, including wheat and barley. They also began to domesticate animals. Much has been written of this so-called “Neolithic Revolution”, that is, the period of change from gathering, hunting and fishing to that of farming and herding. It was a change of lifestyle that occurred at different times in different parts of the world, but what was it that made people choose to cultivate wheat and barley, in particular?

          Cereal grains are a major source of carbohydrate in the human diet, being useful for making porridge, bread and flour. They are also unique as a potential source of malt and malt sugars that can be fermented into beer or ale. With a minimum of simple equipment, such as containers, water and heat, it is possible to trick the barley into digesting itself into sugars. This aspect of grain processing has been overlooked in much of the archaeological literature relating to the transition from Mesolithic to Neolithic.
           Brewing in the 21st century has become a global, multi-million pound technological business, with large breweries producing billions of gallons of beer annually. Many of these large breweries whose names are so familiar today such as Bass, Worthington, Younger and Guinness have only been in existence since the middle of the 18th Century. Prior to this quite recent industrialisation malt, beer and ale were manufactured either domestically or locally on a small scale.

The techniques of brewing small amounts of beer from malted grain have become largely neglected and the skill of domestic brewing is no longer a part of most peoples’ daily experience. This thesis, based upon the biochemistry of malting and brewing and upon small-scale domestic brewing methods (Line 1980) proposes that Mesolithic cultures were interested in making particular products from the grain, that is, sweet malts and ale and that this was a major factor in the decision to selectively cultivate grain. 

The ‘bread or beer’ debate
             Robert Braidwood of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (1953) first posed the question ‘Did man once live by beer alone?’ and this debate still continues today. Solomon Katz (1986, 1991) has coined the phrase ‘biocultural evolution’ and he argues for the importance of the transference of specialised food processing techniques to subsequent generations. Certain processing activities, such as brewing, become enshrined in ritual. Brian Hayden (1996) agrees with Katz and Voigt that grain was first domesticated to produce ale for consumption at feasts and at other special occasions. However, he notes the difficulty of finding direct archaeological evidence for early farming techniques and such grain processing activity as brewing (Hayden 1990). 

Most recently Alexander Joffe (1998:297) has proposed “the production, exchange and consumption of alcoholic beverages form a significant element and regularity in the emergence of complex, hierarchically organised societies, along with the restructuring of labour and gender relations.” Although these arguments are in the context of early Neolithic cultures in the Near East, the Levant and Egypt, they are equally as relevant to grain cultivation and processing across Europe and in the British Isles during the Neolithic.

Brewing in history and prehistory
           Both the manufacture and the consumption of a wide range of alcoholic beverages are understood to have been important aspects of social, economic, religious and ritual life in Iron Age Europe (Dietler 1989), in Viking cultures and in early medieval Europe (Woolf & Eldridge 1994, Davidson 1998). Drinking horns and a huge bronze cauldron that contained the remnants of mead was found in a rich ‘princely’ grave at Hochdorf, Germany, dated to the 1st millennium BC (Biel 1996). A large quantity of carbonised malt, accidentally burnt as it was being kilned, was found at Eberdingen-Hochdorf (Stika 1996). Malt is the primary ingredient for beer or ale.
The earliest written references to ale being made in the British Isles can be found in the Vindolanda tablets, dated to the early 1st millennium AD. Roman soldiers recorded their purchases of barley ale made by the local tribes. Pliny refers to the Gallic tribes of Northern Europe making “intoxicating drinks from corn steeped in water...that are capable of being kept until they have attained a considerable age” (Pliny XIV Ch 29). There are also many references to the manufacture and consumption of ale and mead in the myths, legends and skaldic verse of the Viking Age in northern Europe. 

 Ale and mead were consumed on many occasions, for example at religious feasts and festivals, at funerals, in drinking competitions and before the men departed to sea in the spring (Gayre 1948:45, Davidson 1988:11,12). Women were usually responsible for the manufacture of alcoholic drinks in the societies cited above and there were close associations between the consumption of ale and the worship of deities (Dietler 1996, Joffe 1998, Davidson 1988). Ale is manufactured from malt, with herbs added for flavour and preservation. Mead is fermented honey and water with similar flavourings and preservatives as those used in the brewing of ale, such as Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria). Honey was frequently added to the malt and so it is difficult to be clear as to the precise nature of the ‘ale’ and ‘mead’ referred to in ancient texts, myths and legends.
           There is convincing evidence for the manufacture of both ale and mead during the Bronze Age in Europe and in the British Isles. Organic residues within a beaker accompanying a female burial in a stone-lined cist at North Mains, Strathallan, Fife, were analysed and found to consist of cereal residues and Meadowsweet pollen. They were dated to c1540 BC (Barclay et al 1983). The excavators interpreted this as being the probable remains of a fermented cereal-based drink. At Ashgrove, Fife, Scotland, a beaker containing significant quantities of Lime Flower (Tilia cordata) and Meadowsweet pollen was discovered, again in a stone-lined cist accompanying a burial (Dickson 1978). The contents of the beaker were probably mead rather than ale. Vessels made of birch bark have been found at Egtved and at other Danish bog burial sites. Analysis of the contents indicates the “debris of wheat grains, leaves of bog myrtle (Myrica gale) and fruits of cranberry” (Dickson 1978:111). Bog myrtle was an additive used regularly as a preservative in the manufacture of ale prior to the introduction of hops in the late Middle Ages (Vencl 1994, Bennett 1996).

Neolithic Britain

         In recent years organic residues that might indicate the manufacture of alcoholic drinks have been found on Neolithic pottery assemblages at ritual and domestic sites within the British Isles. Residues on sherds of Grimston-Lyles pottery and Grooved Ware from pits at Machrie Moor, Arran, were analysed and found to contain cereal pollen together with macro plant remains. These were interpreted as the probable remains of a mead-type drink (Haggerty 1991:91). 

Cereal based residues were found on sherds of large Grooved Ware vessels that had been buried in pits situated close by a rectangular timber structure at a Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial site at Balfarg/Balbirnie, Tayside. Pollen from plants including Meadowsweet, Henbane, Deadly Nightshade, Cabbage and Mustards were noted in these residues, an interesting mixture of additives perhaps indicating some kind of fermented mead/ale type brew with special properties (Moffatt in Barclay et al 1993). At the Neolithic village at Barnhouse, Orkney, barley residues have been identified on some of the Grooved Ware vessels (Jones 2000). Scientific analysis, specifically Gas Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry, has indicated the presence of ‘unidentified sugars’ within the fabric of some of these vessels. These sugars might be maltose. 

Thousands of charred cereal grains were found at the site of a large timber hall at Balbridie, Kincardine, dated to the early 4th millennium BC (Fairweather & Ralston 1993). Charred grain was also found at the site of a rectangular timber building at Lismore Fields, Buxton (Garton 1987). These finds and the cereal based residues described above are an indication of grain processing, perhaps for the manufacture of malts and ale, during the early Neolithic in the British Isles. 

          The possibility that grain processing activities during the early Neolithic of the British Isles included malting, mashing and fermentation should be considered and further investigated. Ian Hodder (1997:695) has argued for a destabilisation of ‘taken-for-granted’ assumptions in the interpretation of archaeological data and for the need to look at material culture assemblages as a complete whole. This multidisciplinary research and the subsequent interpretation of Neolithic grain processing techniques take this approach.

         Brewing is “one of the oldest biotechnological processes of all” (Kretschmer 1996) requiring skill as well as specialised knowledge. Each stage of the process requires very specific and different conditions. In prehistory, the transformation of grain into malts and ale was very likely to have been an important social, symbolic and economic activity, as well as being a specialised and skilled craft that was passed on from one generation to the next. Malting, mashing and brewing have a great potential for apprenticeships, for the creation of social hierarchies and status and for the possession of secret or specialised knowledge. These grain processing activities may also have been extremely significant in terms of both ritual and social behaviour.
Andrew Sherratt has investigated and discussed the possibilities that drugs, such as cannabis and opium poppy seeds, were consumed in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, perhaps as ritual or specialist activities (Sherratt 1991, 1995, 1996). Ale is also an intoxicant and a great deal of evidence exists for its manufacture and consumption during the Neolithic. There is also some tentative evidence for the ale to have been enhanced, at times, with psychoactive drugs such as Henbane and Deadly Nightshade although there is some contention and debate surrounding this issue (Long et al 1999). Whether or not alcoholic brews were enhanced with such additives is difficult to prove. 

Malting and brewing in prehistory

In order to recognise the extant archaeological evidence for malting, mashing and fermentation it is helpful to understand the basics of the biochemistry as well as the methods and techniques of grain processing for malt sugars and ale. Chapter One examines the specific craft skills of the maltster and the brewer. Chapter Two examines some of the traditional and ancient use of herbal additives that preserve, flavour or strengthen the ale. The archaeological evidence for malting, mashing and brewing activity in the Levant, in the Near East and in Egypt is assessed in Chapter Three. Chapter Four assesses this evidence with respect to the European early Neolithic and Chapter Five examines the stone buildings of Neolithic Orkney in terms of grain storage and processing activities. Chapter Six investigates whether the Grooved Ware Culture of mainland Britain had a suitable material culture to make malt and ale from the barley grain that they grew. 

         Research for this thesis initially began with the Bronze Age of the British Isles. The original intention was to investigate the manufacturing techniques of Bronze Age brewers. However, barley has been cultivated in Britain since the early 4th millennium BC (Ashmore 1996). The focus of research soon turned to the Neolithic of the British Isles. In order to place British Neolithic grain cultivation and processing techniques into context it was necessary to look at the earliest development of cereal cultivation in the Near East, the Levant and Europe. The remit of this thesis has changed considerably as it has developed.

         The Neolithic extends from the 9th/8th millennia BC in the Levant and Near East to the 4th/3rd millennia BC in the British Isles. This thesis covers a wide geographical area and an extensive timescale. It has not been possible to investigate every area in detail. Therefore selective sites have been chosen for analysis. This is an initial investigation into the possibilities for malting, mashing and brewing during the Neolithic. 

Ashmore, P. 1996 Neolithic and Bronze Age Scotland Historic Scotland, Batsford

Barclay, G. et al 1983 Sites of the 3rd Millennium BC to the 1st Millennium AD at North Mains, Strathallan, Perthshire Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Volume 113, 122-282
Bennett, J. 1996 Ale Beer and Brewsters in England: Womens's work in a changing world, 1300. Oxford University Press
Biel, von J. 1996 Experiment Hochdorf:Keltische Hanwerkskunst Wiederbeleb herausgegeben. Wais & Partner. Stuttgart
Braidwood, R. 1953 Did man once live by bread alone? American Anthropologist 55, 515-526

Davidson, H. 1998 Roles of the Northern Goddess. Routledge
Dickson, J. 1978 Bronze Age Mead Antiquity 52, 108-112
Dietler, M. 1989 Driven by Drink: the role of drinking in the political economy and the case of early Iron Age France Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 9, 352-406

Fairweather, A. & Ralston, I. 1993 The Neolithic timber hall at Balbridie, Grampion region, Scotland: a preliminary note on dating and macrofossils Antiquity 67 313-323

Garton, D. Buxton Current Archaeology 9.8 No 103
Gayre, G. 1948 Wassail! in Mazers of Mead Philimore and Co Ltd

Haggerty, A. 1991 Machrie Moor, Arran: recent excavations of two stone circles. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries Volume 121, 51-94.
Hayden, B. 1990 Nimrods, Piscators, Pluckers and Planters: The Emergence of Food Production. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 9, 31-69
Hayden, B. 1996 Feasting in prehistoric and traditional societies. In Weissner, P. and Schiefenhovel, W. (eds) Food and the status quest: an interdiscpliary perspective. Berghan Books.
Hodder 1997 Always momentary, fluid and flexible: towards a reflexive excavation methology. Antiquity 71,691-700

Joffe, A. 1998 Alcohol and Social Complexity in Ancient Western Asia. Current Anthropology Volume 9 No 3, 297-322
Jones, A. 2002 Archaeological Theory and Scientific Practice Cambridge University Press
(information was initially obtained from his unpublished PhD thesis 1997. It was later published here.) 

Katz, S. and Maytag, F.  1991 Brewing an Ancient Beer Archaeology Volume 44 No 4, 24-33
Katz and Voigt 1986 Bread and Beer: the early use of cereals in the human diet Expedition Volume 25/2 23-34
Kretshmer, von H 1996 Brauen fruher und heute. In Biel 1996

Line, D. 1985 The Big Book of Brewing (14th edition) Argus Books, GW Kent Inc USA
Long et al 1999 Black Henbane in the Scottish Neolithic: a re-evaluation of palynological findings from Grooved Ware pottery at Balfarg Riding School and Henge, Fife. Journal of Archaeological Science Vol 26, 45-52
(published after my thesis completed but reference included in the 2004 BAR.)

Sherratt, A. 1991 Sacred and Profane Substances: the ritual use of narcotics in later neolithic Europe in Garwood et al Sacred and Profane, Proceedings of a conference on Archaeology, Ritual and Religion Oxford University Committee for Archaeology Monograph No 32, 51-64
Sherratt, A. 1995 Alcohol and its alternatives: symbol and substance in pre-industrial cultures in Goodman and Graham Consuming habits: Drugs in History and Anthropology. Routledge.
Sherratt, A. Flying up with the souls of the dead British Archaeology June, No 15, p14
Stike, H-P 1996 Traces of a possible Celtic brewery in Eberdingen-Hochdorf, Kreis Ludwigsburg, SW Germany. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany Volume 5, No 1-2, 57 -65

Vencl, S. 1994 The Archaeology of Thirst. Journal of European Archaeology 2.2, 299-326

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