Wednesday 2 September 2020

pieces from my thesis #2 summary and discussion

It has been said that quite a lot of people only bother to read the Introduction and Conclusion of any piece of academic work. I have no idea whether or not this is true. I like to read the bit in the middle as well.

I posted the introduction to my thesis in the previous post. It was an M.Phil submitted to the University of Manchester in 1999 and published as a British Archaeological Report (BAR) S1213 "Barley Malt and Ale in the Neolithic" in 2004. Here's the summary and discussion of my study into malt and ale in the Neolithic. Since submitting my thesis I've gone on to look into malt, malting, beer brewing technologies and the archaeological evidence for this kind of grain processing in more depth. I've worked with beer historians, beer writers, maltsters, brewers and cereal scientists.

The conclusion to my M.Phil will be in the next post. It's a lot shorter than this, you will be pleased to hear. Reference details are at the end. I hope you enjoy reading this piece from my thesis, written between 1996 and 1999:

This research began as an investigation into the probable methods and techniques of Bronze Age maltsters and brewers in the British Isles and Northern Europe. The original intention was to re-create a Bronze Age ale, based on organic residue evidence that has been discovered in Beaker drinking vessels (Dickson 1978, Barclay et al 1983) and using similar equipment to that available during the Bronze Age.

Debate within academic archaeology about wine, ale, beer and other alcoholic drinks usually tends to concentrate on the social aspects of consumption rather than on the practicalities of manufacture. With this research I aimed to redress the balance and explain the fundamental biochemical reactions and processes that are involved in the malting, mashing and fermentation of grain into ale. These processes remain unchanged across the millennia and allow us to understand something more of past rituals and daily lives.

It has been argued that beer drinking was a Bronze Age phenomenon and that it was part of a ‘cult package’ that spread across Europe from one group to another (Burgess & Shennan 1976:312). More recent analysis of the origins of alcoholic drinks has suggests “the most plausible scenario for the beginnings of alcohol production lies in the domestication of the sugar-rich tree crops of the Mediterranean”, such as date, olive, fig, grape and pomegranate (Sherratt 1995:25). Certainly, this is an area where the fermentation of naturally occurring fruit sugars could have been the impetus for the first fermented wines. But beer and ale are products of the grain, a crop that was first gathered and processed by epi Palaeolithic and early Neolithic groups in the Levant and the Near East from the 9th millennium BC onwards.

Grain cultivation and grain processing eventually spread from the Near East and Levant across Europe reaching the British Isles c4000 BC. This research has covered a broad geographical and archaeological range. It has investigated the evidence of the earliest grain processing communities in the Neolithic Levant, Near East, Northern Europe, Orkney, Ireland and Britain. These early agricultural communities have been investigated with one question in mind - was the material culture suitable for the manufacture of malt and ale from the grain? 

The emphasis throughout this research has been on the practicalities and the specific rituals that are involved in the transformation of grains into malt, malt sugars and ale.

Ian Hodder (1997) has argued that there is a need for archaeologists to question long-held assumptions and ‘taken-for-granted’ interpretations in archaeology. He has stressed the need to re-interpret the available archaeological evidence holistically, not just looking at isolated aspects of a site but looking instead at the whole cultural and material assemblage. My research has taken this approach.

It has been assumed in most of the archaeological literature that barley, wheat and other cereal grains were a source of carbohydrate in the prehistoric diet and that grain was grown to be processed into only bread, flour, porridge or gruel. It has also been assumed that the main function of quern stones was to grind grain into flour for bread. Querns are just as useful to crush the malted grain prior to mashing. A search through the index and contents lists of books and articles related to the Neolithic cultures of Europe and Britain shows a significant lack of references to malt, beer, ale, grain processing techniques, brewing or malt sugars. Cereal grains, when discovered in the archaeological record, are often noted as having been ‘parched’ or ‘roasted’, the assumption being that the grain has simply been harvested and then dried for optimum storage. If this ‘parching’ of grain occurred after the grain had begun to germinate then the necessary enzymes to convert the starch into sugars have been released. With a minimum of equipment and resources the malted and dried barley could then very easily be transformed into a sweet malt liquid that can then be fermented into an alcoholic drink, such as beer or ale.

In order to assess the suitability of Neolithic material culture for such grain processing techniques it is essential to understand the processes, methods and techniques that are involved in malting, mashing and fermentation. Because the biochemical laws governing these processes are unchanged across the millennia it is possible to accurately re-create ancient grain processing techniques experimentally, as shown in Chapter One. The biochemistry is complicated but the techniques and methodologies are relatively simple. Brewing is a craft requiring knowledge, skill, practice and experience to successfully transform grain into ale. Pasteur and Tyndall’s experiments into Fermentation in the mid 19th century demonstrated the scientific explanation for a biochemical process that had, for millennia, been believed to be a magical and a spontaneous event.

Wild barley and wheat grew naturally in the area known as the Fertile Crescent, that is, the Levant, the Tigris/Euphrates valley and the mountains in northern Syria. Cereal grains were first gathered by Natufian groups in the 9th/8th millennia BC alongside other species of plants, such as lentils and peas. These people were hunters and gatherers. They exploited the natural resources of their environment to the full and this, of course, would have included the gathering of wild grain.

If these wild cereal grains were allowed to grow a little before being ground or crushed with stones, then people would have noticed that there was an obvious visible and practical benefit - the husk of the grain would be broken down and malt flour would be produced naturally. The task of crushing or grinding slightly germinated grain is much easier than crushing ungerminated grain. Invisibly, germination has released enzymes that convert the starch of the grain into malt sugars and produce malt flour. Any gentle heating of the now malted and crushed barley with water would produce a sweet barley mash and malt liquid, so long as the enzymes were not killed in water temperatures that were too hot, that is, above 67 degrees centigrade.

This saccharification of the barley malt can be seen, smelt and tasted. Knowledge of the existence of enzymes and an understanding of the complex enzymatic reactions are not necessary for this simple process of mashing to be successful. Malting and the subsequent mashing of grains were perhaps among the first grain processing activities in the Fertile Crescent. It is easy to appreciate the wonder and the amazement of these early Neolithic cultures when first introduced to this phenomenon. Here was a food resource that could be processed into sweetness. It was quite unlike other food processing activities that would have been involved with the other locally gathered natural resources, such as the preparation and cooking of peas or lentils. Prior to the discovery of sweet barley mash, the only other source of sugars would have been fruits or honey. 

The Biblical lands, that is, the area of the Levant, are known as and referred to as ‘a Land flowing with Milk and Honey’. Could this description originally have referred to a land where milk was obtained from domesticated animals and sweet malts were processed from the grain, a land where people had learnt to tame the wild animals and to process grain into sweetness?

Malt liquid and barley mash are easy to make, versatile food products and they are very good to eat. They can be mixed with milk to make a delicious and highly nutritious food resource. Malt contains digestible B-Vitamins that would have improved the health of those who began to eat it, although the evidence of the early Natufians’ dental caries might suggest an adverse effect on their dental health.

The step from the malting and mashing of barley to that of alcoholic fermentation is not a difficult one to imagine. Wild yeasts would have flourished in a sweet mash or in malt liquids that had been left to stand. Within covered vessels, conditions are perfect for an alcoholic rather than a lactic fermentation. With careful observation, practice and experimentation, the earliest grain processors would have learnt to manage the several stages from grain to ale. These techniques would then have been passed on from one generation to the next.

Because of its unique properties, grain was probably regarded as a special or as a sacred crop in Neolithic times. There were many complex rituals surrounding the cultivation, harvesting and processing of the grain in both prehistoric and historic times. Many of these rituals are still celebrated today, such as the annual Harvest Festival, although now within the context of the Christian religion rather than pagan female deities.

Hilda Ellis Davidson (1998) has produced a detailed and fascinating study of the various goddesses who were worshipped in Northern Europe in prehistoric and historic times. She discusses the important part played by women in ancient and prehistoric cultures. It is the culmination of many years that she has spent studying North European mythology, legends and traditions. She notes that there are very many complex rituals surrounding grain cultivation, such as the preparation of the ground for the sowing of the grain in spring (Davidson 1998:58-68). Some are described in historical texts and some are evidenced by archaeological finds of ards buried in ritual contexts, for example a perfectly preserved ard was discovered in 1994, buried in the ditch of a henge near Dumfries and dated to the early 3rd millennium BC (ibid:60) She describes the ritual uses of the plough, for marking territorial or village boundaries (ibid:64) and for the cutting of ritual furrows to celebrate the beginning of Spring and the new season for cultivation (ibid:59). There were strong associations between the sowing of the seed and the goddess of the grain, with springtime rituals involving human and animal sacrifice taking place in Northern Europe until the 19th Century AD (ibid: 67).

Hilda Ellis Davidson’s work has been referred to occasionally throughout this thesis, but since the emphasis of my study has been on the practicalities of the manufacture of malts and ale, many of her ideas were not raised or discussed in the earlier Chapters. It is therefore apt to refer to her work here in the context of a discussion of ritual activity, belief systems, magic, barley and the Neolithic. She writes of a rapidly growing interest in the importance of “women as innovators in many fields at a time when small nomadic communities were extending their activities from hunting and gathering to herding and agriculture” (Davidson 1998:8). Women in prehistoric times were largely responsible for the sowing of seed, for the raising of crops, for the processing of grain and for the preparation of a variety of foodstuffs in early agricultural communities. Women also grew and gathered the herbs required for healing and the treatment of injuries, as well as being skilled in midwifery and in the nurturing of children (ibid:154). She concludes that women were the mainstay of the domestic environment, caring for house, home and all within it.

These are very similar ideas to those of Ian Hodder (1990) who has proposed the ‘domus’ and ‘agrios’ theories of social development in Neolithic Europe. Hilda Ellis Davidson’s emphasis is on female influence and female power in prehistory. Her book concentrates upon the many and varied “special skills and mysteries of women” one of which was the cultivation and specialised processing of the grain into ale (Davidson 1998:138). Her work is an invaluable study and it should be read by any archaeologist who wishes to better understand the role of the female in prehistory, as well as the ancient belief systems and rituals of the past. It provides an insight into many aspects of domestic, spiritual and ritual life in prehistory.

Early Neolithic communities in the Levant and the Near East would have learned the necessary methods and techniques of grain processing through repeated trial and error. This knowledge then spread through the complex and far-reaching trade and exchange networks that made use of land, sea and river routes into Europe. The practice of and the ideas behind grain cultivation and processing spread rapidly into northern Europe. The similarities in lifestyles and material culture of the inhabitants of the Bulgarian settlement tells of the 6th/5th millennia BC and those of 6th millennium BC in Anatolia have been noted in Chapter Four of this thesis. Many more archaeological examples could have been selected for a similar comparison. For example, Whittle (1996) describes the Vinca culture of the 6th and 5th millennia BC and the elaborate and complex late Neolithic buildings of the Hungarian plain. These were cultures that also possessed the basic requirements for making malt and brewing ale.

The coastal groups and communities of northern Europe maintained a hunting, gathering and fishing lifestyle for almost a millennium longer than the agricultural communities in Central Europe, who lived in settlements along the river valleys. However, there is some evidence of organic residues on Ertebolle pottery vessels that have been interpreted as being the remnants of fermented grain and blood (Tilley 1996:25). This suggests the probable trade and exchange of grain between agricultural and non-agricultural communities of the 5th and 4th Millennia BC. It also suggests interesting and as yet unknown ritual behaviour in both the manufacture and in the consumption of this alcoholic drink. Eventually, the Northern European Mesolithic groups began to cultivate their own grain, some time in the early 3rd millennium BC.

Many different theories have been put forward concerning the reason for the acceptance of grain cultivation within these groups and some of these have been discussed in Chapter Four. It seems likely that Mesolithic groups were interested in the products of the grain, that is the sweet malts and the ale, rather than a change of lifestyle to that of farming.

‘Farming’ is a cultural concept and use of the word creates an image of an organised and regulated farmstead as we are accustomed to seeing today or in historical times. Farming is a way of life that has evolved and developed over the years as a result of people’s desire to grow and to process grain and other crops and to keep domesticated animals. To refer to these early cultivators and processors of grain as ‘farmers’ does not really seem to be appropriate.

One of the most striking aspects of the European and British Neolithic was the construction of huge communal monuments, standing stones and finely constructed tombs. Ritual behaviour and activity is one of the most discussed and well known aspects of the Neolithic. The people who made and used Grooved Ware during the 4th and 3rd millennia BC were the earliest grain cultivators and processors in Britain. They continued to exploit the natural resources of the seas, the rivers and the woodland whilst they began to cultivate grain and to manufacture malts and ale, as argued in Chapters Five and Six of this thesis. They also constructed impressive and lasting monuments, such as the two stone circles on Orkney, numerous timber and stone circles throughout the mainland, elaborate tombs and burial chambers as well as standing stones, cursus monuments and henges. My research indicates that there was a powerful female element to this culture that was closely related to ritual activities and to the cultivation and processing of barley.

Organic residues containing potentially dangerous psychoactive substances, such as the crushed Henbane seeds that were discovered on Grooved Ware sherds at Balfarg (Barclay et al 1983), indicate that mind-altering alcoholic brews were sometimes made for ritual occasions. It is impossible to know whether the purpose of this brew was for shamanic and magical practices or as a poisonous drink for use in a ritual funerary context. Its potential use as an ‘external medicine’ as noted by Thomas Culpepper, perhaps for toothache, cannot be ignored.

This research, which began as being a relatively straightforward examination of the likely brewing methods of British Bronze Age people has revealed many fascinating and previously unconsidered aspects of Neolithic life. There is much further work to be done in this area. The role of women in the Neolithic needs to be re-evaluated, for example, what was their role in healing, medicine and in ritual activity and what was their knowledge and use of herbs? Archaeobotanical study and analysis can be very useful in answering these questions. A serious plea has to be made to all archaeologists to retain and to analyse the organic residues on pottery sherds rather than destroy such important evidence by routinely scrubbing the pottery.

One aspect of the Neolithic that has been unexpectedly illuminated by this research is the importance of malt in prehistory. Although the manufacture and the consumption of ale and of other alcoholic drinks is seen as being important ritually, socially and economically, the manufacture of the malt may be just as, if not more, important. Mixed with milk or eaten as a product in its own right, malt would have been a nutritious addition to Neolithic diet and appealed to young and old alike. In the public demonstrations and tastings of the barley mash that I have undertaken as part of this research the overwhelming response has been positive. People have expressed a liking for the sweet mash and return for a second tasting.


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.
Burgess, C. & Shennan, S. 1976 'The Beaker Phenomenon: some suggestions' in Burgess, C. & Miket, R. (eds) Settlement and Economy in the 3rd Millennium BC. British Archaeological Reports 33, 309-327.

Davidson, H. 1998 Roles of the Northern Goddess Routledge.
Dickson, J. 1978 Bronze Age Mead Antiquity 52, 108-11.

Hodder, I. 1990 The Domestication of Europe. Blackwell.
Hodder, I. 1997 'Always momentary, fluid Conference publication from the Neolithic Studies Group meeting and flexible: towards a reflexive excavation methodology.' Antiquity 71, 691-700. 

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.

Tilley, C. 1996  An Ethnography of the Neolithic: early prehistoric societies in southern Scandinavia. Cambridge University Press. 

Whittle, A. 1996 'Houses in Context: Buildings as process.' in Darvill, T. & Thomas J. (eds) Neolithic Houses in north west Europe and Beyond. Oxbow Monographs 57, 13-27.
Publication from the Neolithic Studies Group conference of the same name.

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