Wednesday, 7 July 2021

lost blog #2 what did neolithic people drink at feasts?

one of our ancient ales
The pubs are open again after lock down. It seems a good time to raise a glass to the Neolithic, when the practice of making malt and ale began in Britain and Ireland, around six thousand years ago. Crops such as barley and wheat began to be grown and the lifestyle of the hunter gatherer changed. What were they doing with the grain? Flour and bread? Porridge? Was grain a staple crop? Or was it a high status crop for making malt and fermentable malt sugars? Interesting questions.
The archaeological evidence for making malt and ale in the Neolithic is minimal and ephemeral. There is still controversy, disagreement and just a little suspicion amongst some archaeologists about what sort of alcoholic beverage they could have been drinking at feasts held at Stonehenge, Durrington Walls, the Ness of Brodgar and other stone circles and ceremonial centres of the Neolithic. I know this because some of the famous and important archaeologists continue to tell me so. 
Ale in the Neolithic seems to be an unacceptable idea for some archaeologists. Others simply refuse to consider or discuss the idea and prefer to turn a blind eye to it. There's no evidence for neolithic ale, they tell me, and you haven't proved it.

My response to that is that the clues are there, when you know what to look for, as we explain in this lost blog #2 and elsewhere in academic papers. We originally wrote this for English Heritage at the time of their exhibition at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre, suitably named Feast! which ran for a year from September 2017. After much deliberation and editing the blog was eventually published a week before the exhibition closed in September 2018.

I've also been told that, in the neolithic, "we know that they liked getting sloshed on something or other". This comment was made during an online meeting a few months ago. It was directed at me. I was shocked and angry to be spoken to like this on a public archaeology forum. Our research is not about "getting sloshed" but rather the archaeological evidence for grain processing technologies of the Neolithic. We've come to the conclusion that the first farmers grew grain as a status crop. Not as a staple crop. See lost blog #1 for more details.

The original blog from three years ago is here. As in lost blog #1, this is an updated version to include a few new thoughts, ideas and evidence. A book about the Ness of Brodgar was published in November last year. The thorny question of what they may have been doing with the grain is not addressed in this beautifully illustrated volume "As It Stands". However, the discovery of carbonised grain with missing embryos, large Grooved Ware pots, and an extensive drainage system point towards the possibilities of processing grain into malt, malt sugars and ale. 
Lots of things happened at the Ness of Brodgar. It was a place for meeting, eating, drinking and celebrations. Visitors may have come from far and near. The  magical transformation of grain into malt, malt sugars and ale is just one aspect of the huge story of the Ness.
What did Neolithic people drink at feasts?

It’s traditional to have an alcoholic drink at a celebration or a feast. There’s a wide variety to choose from today. But what did they drink 4500 years ago at feasts at Durrington Walls and other Neolithic ceremonial centres, for example, the Ness of Brodgar on Orkney? Were they drinking alcohol? If so, what were the ingredients? How was it made? We've been investigating the archaeological evidence from a practical, scientific and technological perspective for over twenty years. 
Sugar and alcohol in the Neolithic
All alcoholic drinks are made from sugar. Grapes are a high sugar fruit and can be fermented into wine. Honey can be diluted with water and fermented into mead. Grain is made up of starch and is processed in a totally different way. Malted grain provides the fermentable sugars to make ales and beers. The malt needs to be crushed, then 'mashed in' or, in other words, heated with water to make fermentable liquid malt sugars. This is the wort. Yeast converts the sweet wort into alcohol. This is alcoholic fermentation. There are other kinds of fermentation that don’t result in alcohol, such as making yoghurt from milk, food preservation and much more. See Steinkraus for a detailed review of all sorts of fermented foods from all over the world.

What sugars were available 4500 years ago in Neolithic Britain and Ireland? 
The possibilities are limited. We can eliminate grapes, because there is no evidence for grape cultivation in the British Isles at this time. Country wines made with flowers, for example dandelion or elderflower, can also be ruled out. Why? Because flowers don’t ferment – it’s the added sugars that make the alcohol.
There were no native fruits sweet enough to ferment into alcohol. Blackberries, elderberries, sloes and crab apples are all sour fruits with very little sugar content. They require several bags of added modern sugar to make an alcoholic drink.
There were only two options in Neolithic Britain: honey for making mead, and cereals for malting, mashing and fermenting into ale or beer. Honey could have been gathered from wild bees’ nests, but there would only have been enough for small amounts of mead. The best source of abundant sugars for fermentation was the grain that those first farmers were so eager to grow.
a simple demonstration by Merryn Dineley of making malt sugar at Eindhoven Open Air Archaeology Museum in April 2009. Crushed pale malt is in the pots beside the hearth. It is transformed into a sweet, dark brown mash by gentle heating with water in a bowl on the hot ashes of the fire. Pottery made by Flor Buchuk Gil. Image © Merryn Dineley
The malting and mashing processes
Grain is usually associated with making flour, bread or porridge. However, it can also be malted. The malting process (partial germination) transforms the grain. When grains begin to germinate, enzymes are released that convert grain starch into sugar. It’s possible to make plenty of malt sugars by mixing crushed malt with water, then heating it gently. The enzymes reactivate in the mash tun and complete the conversion of starch into sugar. This is the saccharification and it’s the basis for all ales and beers made from the grain. It results in a ‘sweet mash’ of grain and liquid.

Separate the liquid from the mash and you have what brewers today call ‘spent grain’ and ‘wort’, the sweet liquid that’s fermented into ale or beer. The ale is consumed. Spent grain is fed to pigs and cattle, so doesn’t survive in the archaeological record. Nevertheless, although the evidence for malting, mashing and fermentation is rare, some indications that the brewing process took place in the Neolithic can be found in the archaeological record.
an example of a pig jaw from Durrington Walls with teeth caries (the hole at the base of the tooth). © Stonehenge Riverside Project

Spent grain as animal fodder.
The discovery of pigs’ teeth with caries (signs of decay) at Durrington Walls is very interesting. They indicate that these pigs were fed something sweet to fatten them up. The official explanation was that the pigs were fed honey. This is not a reasonable explanation. Honey is only mildly cariogenic. You would have to feed the pigs prodigious quantities of honey to produce caries. It is unlikely that honey was available in large quantities. Such a valuable food resource would not have been fed to the pigs. It would have been made into mead. Spent grain from the mash tun is still slightly sweet and it is highly nutritious, a far more likely source of animal fodder than honey.
What is spent grain? Most people don't get to see it, unless you happen to be a brewer or a farmer. Today, as ever, brewer’s spent grain, also known as ‘draff’, makes excellent animal fodder. Breweries sell it or give it away to local farmers to feed their animals. We give our spent grain to neighbours for their hens. We get eggs in return. If the spent grain is thrown away, it will be eaten by slugs, worms, rodents and birds. Spent grain is completely biodegradable.
Spent grain left over in the mash tun after the process of washing all the sugars out in the brewing process. © Merryn Dineley

Grain survival
Carbonised grain is not biodegradable. It can survive on an archaeological site for thousands of years. This charred or burnt grain, often damaged and with missing embryos, is found throughout the British Isles at excavations of rectangular timber buildings dated to the Neolithic. The condition of the carbonised grain indicates the sort of processing involved. When grain has partly germinated, the embryo of the grain is missing; this is the part of the grain where growth begins.
In Bronze Age, Iron Age or medieval contexts, archaeologists have interpreted finds of carbonised grain with missing embryos as good evidence for malting. Could a similar interpretation apply in a Neolithic context? We think so.

In the late 1970s, thousands of carbonised grains were found during excavations at Balbridie in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. This was the site of a large rectangular timber building dating from the early Neolithic period. What kind of grain processing happened here? When some of the grains were examined by the author, some were missing their embryos. This could mean that these first farmers knew how to make malt, the fundamental ingredient for ale and beer, and they also knew how to make fermentable sugars from the grain by ‘mashing in’.

Another possible grain barn or malt house has been excavated at Hallbreck Farm on Wyre, Orkney. Thousands of carbonised grains were found in the remains of an early Neolithic timber building with stone footings. It had a well repaired clay floor, perfect for malting. Both these buildings, Balbridie and Wyre, were destroyed by fire. This is a common fate for malt barns, when drying the malt goes wrong and the fire gets out of control.
In the recently published book about the Ness of Brodgar excavations 'As It Stands' there is a short chapter entitled 'Grain and Fire'. Sadly there is no discussion of potential grain processing strategies at this ceremonial and impressive Neolithic site, although there is talk of a great feast involving the slaughter of four hundred cattle. I find this incredible and I wonder how they managed to kill and process so many animals for a single feast.

Carbonised naked barley grains were discovered in Structure 14 at the Ness of Brodgar. I was most intrigued to see that some of them appear to have missing embryos. Could this be a sign of malting? If so then there is some evidence for ale at the Ness of Brodgar. This collection of carbonised grain is certainly worth much further investigation.
Carbonised naked barley grains from the Ness of Brodgar with missing embryos, an indicator that this is malt. Photo from From As It Stands, 2021, Card et al p178

Danish archaeologists have done some recent research into the potential archaeological evidence for malt in carbonised naked barley grains. They have found that missing embryos is one of the potential markers. Their paper was published in Journal of Archaeological Science in January 2021.
Large Grooved Ware pots as ale fermentation vessels
Ceramic pots are needed for ‘mashing in’ and also for fermentation. Thousands of sherds of Grooved Ware – a flat-bottomed, bucket-shaped pottery – were found at Durrington Walls. Some of the pots had a volume of up to eight gallons, perfect as fermentation vessels. 
At the Neolithic village at Skara Brae, Orkney, a huge Grooved Ware pot with a volume of 20 gallons or more was found during Vere Gordon Childe's excavations in the 1930s. This pot had been placed beside the hearth, the best place for fermenting ale.

A complete Grooved Ware pot from Durrington Walls. Larger examples of these pots would have been ideal for fermenting wort into ale. © Historic England, with permission of Salisbury Museum
So, what were they drinking at the neolithic feast?
All this evidence makes it possible that the builders and users of Stonehenge and other Neolithic ceremonial sites in the British Isles knew how to make malt and ale from grain. The transformation of grain into ale can easily be described as a ritual activity. You have to know what to do with the grain and how to do it, providing the right conditions for success at each stage of the brewing process.

What did Neolithic ale taste like? It was probably similar to traditional farmhouse ales that are still made today, but without the hops. Traditional brewing plants and herbs, for example meadowsweet, yarrow, heather, juniper or bog myrtle, could have been used as flavourings and preservatives.

Grain was probably a high-status crop, grown for making malt and ale. It was not just for flour, bread, porridge or gruel as is often assumed in much of the academic literature.

If you want to read more about our research into malt, malt sugars and ancient ale here is my latest paper in the EXARC Journal in May 2021. Here is a link: 

Sunday, 21 March 2021

lost blogs #1: The prehistoric transformation of grain into ale: magic, ceremony, ritual and more

Lost blogs? What might they be? I thought it would be fun to look at and review the blogs that we wrote several years ago for other people's blogs. Some of them have become lost in the mists of time or they have just faded away, as things do. 

This one was written for Sigurd Towrie who created the website Orkneyjar. It's an excellent resource if you want to know about the history, archaeology and prehistory of the Orkney Islands. We were asked to write briefly about some of the potential archaeological evidence for making malt, malt sugars and ale from grain. I think that it was written about ten years ago, but I'm not sure. There must have been a strict limit on the number of words that we were allowed to write because, as I read this blog back to myself, it is far, far too brief in places! So now I've added a bit more detail, as well as putting in a few links to some papers and blogs for those who might want to read more about it. 

The original is here. This blog is different. It's an update, inspired by and including some of the original. Perhaps it has a slightly pompous title, I don't know. The thing is: if archaeologists want a mysterious ancient ritual then here's a good one to consider:

The prehistoric transformation of grain into ale:

Magic, ceremony, ritual and more.

We grew six row bere in our garden, it's a local landrace barley

My research began in 1995 as an investigation of brewing techniques in Bronze Age Britain. As an archaeology student I was taught that 'beakers were for beer' and I wondered how they made it. Archaeological discoveries inspired me. Cereal based residues similar to those on a Bronze Age food vessel were identified on 5000 year old Grooved Ware sherds from the Balfarg ceremonial site, Fife, Scotland. Suddenly the focus of my research turned from the Bronze Age to the Neolithic. I've been investigating and researching ancient and traditional malting and brewing techniques since then. It was an important element of ritual and domestic life in the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron ages. 

There's a general assumption that, in the Neolithic, grain would have been ground into flour to make bread, or perhaps it was boiled in water to make some sort of porridge or gruel. But grain can also be malted. Traditional malting and brewing techniques are, I think, the key to understanding grain processing activity in prehistory. Modern and medieval maltsters and brewers use the same techniques as their prehistoric ancestors. The biochemical processes of grain germination remain the same and, although science has only recently explained malting and brewing, our prehistoric ancestors discovered what worked and what did not work. The techniques and skills necessary to convert grain into malt, malt sugars, wort and ale evolved and developed over the millennia, originating in the Fertile Crescent over ten thousand years ago. This type of grain processing was a major aspect of the Neolithic Revolution as it spread throughout Europe. 

It's possible that women were the primary hoe agriculturalists, the nurturers and the main processors of food in the epi Palaeolithic and the Neolithic. If this was so then it follows that they were the ones who first learned and practised the complex rituals involved in the transformation of grain into malt, malt sugars and ale. Was this the first alchemy? I don't know about that but, nevertheless, it's an activity steeped in ritual. It could easily be described as something magical and mysterious. There is specialised knowledge, skill and experience involved in making good malt and ale. Maltsters and brewers are renowned, even today, for being secretive about their craft. Perhaps it was so in the past and those with the knowledge and skill held high status in their community.

Evidence for making malt and ale in the archaeological record is minimal. Why? Because it is an ephemeral product. The ale is consumed. Spent grain is fed to animals. Even if it is thrown away, the wild birds, the slugs, snails and worms will eat it. Over the years we have put tons of spent grain on our garden since it is a great soil improver and it feeds the worms. There is no trace of it left. In the archaeological record some of the material culture survives and it provides sound evidence for malting and brewing activity, provided that one understands the fundamental processes and the necessary equipment and facilities. (see Dineley, M. 2004 Barley Malt and Ale in the Neolithic, British Archaeological Reports, BAR S1213).

The earliest grain agriculturalists of the British Isles (c 4000 BC) were also the megalith and monument builders. Associated with them is the integrated "cultural package" of grain cultivation and processing, the management of domesticated animals and the manufacture of ceramics. Grain was very likely a special and sacred crop rather than a staple crop. Making malt, malt sugars and ale was an important part of this Neolithic "cultural package". 

The skills involved in the construction of megalithic monuments and buildings are often acknowledged and investigated by archaeologists. How did they move those big stones? Where did the stones come from? The complexities of animal husbandry are also recognised, as is the craft of making and firing pots. The crafts of prehistoric life are studied in detail by experimental archaeologists and ancient technologists. But the skills and rituals of the maltster and brewer have  been neglected in archaeological interpretations of British Neolithic material culture. As I read the original blog back to myself in the Spring of 2021, several years after writing it, I have to say that, sadly, this is still the case in most areas of the academic world of British Neolithic academic archaeology. It's time for archaeologists and archaeobotanists to talk about grain processing strategies of the Neolithic. What were they doing with the grain? Why were they so keen to grow it? Were they making flour and bread, porridge and gruel or were they making malt and malt sugars for fermenting into ale? Or were they doing all of these things?

The archaeological evidence shows that, in the British Isles, grain was being made into ale, an intoxicating beverage to be ritually consumed at ceremonial sites from the Neolithic period onwards. The making of ale in Neolithic times was as much a ritual activity as its' consumption at feasts in ancient places, for example, at Durrington Walls and the Ness of Brodgar. Grain was a sacred crop grown to make a special and sacred drink, ale.

Ale and beer are made from the grain. The most popular grain to use is barley, but wheat, oats and rye can also be malted. The processes of malting and mashing convert the grain into liquid malt sugars (wort) that can be fermented into alcohol. Sugars ferment, starch does not. Flowers, for example meadowsweet or heather, cannot be fermented into an alcoholic beverage. They are the flavouring, perhaps adding medicinal or other properties, and they can also act as a good preservative. 

There are many kinds of Neolithic pottery that survive in the archaeological record of the islands now known as Britain. There are the remains of bowls, small and large, as well as bag shaped pots and bucket shaped pots of all sizes. One of these pottery styles is Grooved Ware, once known as Rinyo-Clacton Ware because it is found at Neolithic sites throughout the islands, from Clacton to Orkney. This bucket shaped pottery comes in all sizes, ranging from tiny vessels to huge pots. It was probably used for a variety of purposes. The larger pots are often around eight to ten gallons in volume and are suitable for the fermentation of barley wort into ale. They could also have been used for storage.

Some typical Grooved Ware pottery drawn by Stuart Piggott

It would be useful to analyse sherds of Grooved Ware pots for beerstone, a precipitate that is found on the internal surface of vessels used for fermenting wort or for storing ale and beer. The identification of beerstone on pottery is definite chemical evidence for the transformation of grain into ale. Beerstone was first identified by Dr Virginia Badler on pots from Godin Tepe, a Sumerian village or trading post in the Zagros Mountains of modern day Iran, dated to the 4th Millennium BC. 

When I studied archaeology as an undergraduate in the late 1990s I was taught that Grooved Ware is often found in association with ceremonial and ritual sites dated to the Neolithic. For example, sherds of a large Grooved Ware pot were found in the central hearth at the Stones of Stenness, Orkney. At Barnhouse Neolithic village, situated only half a mile from the impressive stone circle of Stenness, archaeologists found lots of finely decorated sherds from small, medium and large Grooved Ware vessels. 

Sherds of Grooved Ware have been found in great quantities at the Ness of Brodgar excavations, just a stone's throw from the Ring of Brodgar. The Ness, as it is affectionately known, has been interpreted as an important Neolithic temple precinct or ceremonial centre. It's a place where there would have been ritual ceremonies, celebrations and feasting on a regular basis. 

So what were they drinking at these feasts? I've asked this question of the experts at the excavations. I was once told "We know they were drinking some sort of alcohol!" Usually I am ignored, as if it is an unreasonable thing to ask. In a Neolithic context such as this there are no options other than ale or mead. And yet, at the time of writing this, there is still no academic discussion or curiosity about what they may have been drinking at the feasts held at this site five thousand years ago. The recent publication on the Ness excavations "As It Stands" makes no mention of malt or ale, as if this aspect of ceremonial feasting is unimportant, irrelevant or insignificant. I don't understand why because there is substantial evidence to be considered. Here are a few examples:

Some evidence for making malt and ale in Neolithic Britain

Barnhouse, Neolithic village, Orkney

Making the malt: there's a possible malting floor in structure six, a circular stone building. The clay floor had been improved, repaired and enlarged over the years. It had a polished surface as if it was used frequently. Floors can have many potential functions. Careful repair and resurfacing indicates that it was perhaps used for malting. Why? The maltster doesn't want cracks for the grain to fall into and a smooth surface for turning the germinating grain is desirable. When we visited the Corrigall Farm Museum in the late 1990s there was a beaten earth floor in the grain barn. We made an ale from the last grain malted on this floor.  The fundamental technology of floor malting has not changed in millennia.

Crushing the malt: barley husks were found in structure two. How do you de-husk barley? It's not easily possible unless the grain is malted. Once barley has been partially germinated (malted) and dried it becomes friable and easy to crush. The husks naturally detach during this process. Malting and crushing are an efficient way of de-husking the grain. Barley husks found on archaeological sites probably indicate this kind of grain processing. 

Fermentation, ale storage and drinking vessels: the Grooved Ware pottery assemblage consisted of a few very large pots of several gallons, a number of medium sized pots and many smaller ones. This is an assemblage that might represent fermentation, storage and drinking vessels. The large pots were in the houses and were static, too large to be moved. Sherds from many Grooved Ware flat bottomed pots with a volume of a pint or two were found in structure eight, the largest building in the village and interpreted as a ceremonial building. 

Residues: organic residues were identified on Grooved Ware pottery sherds. Among these were 'barley lipids' and 'unidentified sugars'. Intriguing results. The sugars could be either from grain processing (malt sugars) or they could be from milk processing. Further analysis of the pots would clarify things. Lipid analysis techniques have improved a lot since the 1980s, so I am told. Barley lipids are the product of lautering and sparging, that is, washing hot water through a sweet barley mash to extract the liquid wort. Lipids are washed out in the latter stages of sparging.

Drains: there is a drainage system that serves both roof drainage and the removal of liquid waste from certain buildings. In his book "Dwelling among the Monuments", the story of the excavations at Barnhouse between 1986 and 1993, Dr Colin Richards mentions a 'liquid product' on pages 138/9. What could it have been? Was it ale? We think so.

There was a drain around the dresser in structure eight which was later replaced by a stone trough. We are not suggesting that Barnhouse was a brewery. There would have been a variety of activities in the village five thousand years ago. However, they did have the necessary facilities for making malt and ale and there is some good evidence for brewing, some of the best in Scotland. 

Details of the excavations and photos of the reconstruction see here

Skara Brae, Neolithic village, Orkney

As a student of archaeology in the late 1990s, I read all the excavation reports that I could find on Neolithic Orkney. Gordon Childe wrote detailed notes on his excavations in the 1930s. I've read and studied them all. Later excavations at Skara Brae are still not fully published. 

Sherds from a large decorated Grooved Ware pot were found by the central hearth in house seven. The pot measured two feet in diameter and was two feet deep, having a volume of up to 30 gallons. Why did they make pots of this size? Why was it kept beside the central hearth? One good reason could be to keep a fermenting wort nice and warm. 

Drains and a strange green slime were identified by Childe in his excavations. The slime was never analysed. It might possibly be the partially decayed moulds that readily grow on the sugars washed from the equipment used for processing grain into ale. Childe suggested that it might be the remains of excrement, but this is most unlikely when it was found in the pit at the foot of the dresser in hut seven.

At the Skara Brae visitor centre there is a mention on one of the information boards that the neolithic inhabitants may have drank some sort of "beer made from plants and herbs". This is still there today. No change, in spite of the fact that ale and beer are products of the grain. Flowers and plants cannot be fermented into alcohol. They are useful for flavourings, medicinal purposes or preservation. You can't brew beer with them.

Details of Skara Brae here

Durrington Walls, neolithic henge and settlement near Stonehenge

A curious and, I think, unique potential piece of evidence for brewing was revealed here, an important Neolithic ceremonial site associated with ritual, ceremony and feasting. Grooved Ware pottery was found in abundance. Pig teeth were found to have decay, as if fed on something sweet. This decay on pig teeth was initially ascribed to feeding the pigs on honey, in order to make honey roast ham. I don't think so. This is an unlikely explanation. The young pigs were probably fattened up on spent grain, also known as draff. This practice of feeding spent grain, a waste product from the mash tun, is well attested throughout the centuries. It continues today with all grain breweries selling or giving it away to farmers, if they can. It is a nutritious food for cows, pigs and goats.

And finally, the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney

At the time of writing the original blog the Ness of Brodgar had just been discovered. Over the years this excavation has turned out to reveal a major ceremonial and feasting site of the Neolithic with huge stone buildings a stone's throw from the Ring of Brodgar. It has attracted worldwide attention and interest. It is an internationally important site. 

I was disappointed to see that in the recently published book on the Ness of Brodgar excavations 'As It Stands' (published November 2020), there is no discussion nor is there any mention of what they may have been doing with the grain or what the large Grooved Ware pots were used for. I've tried to talk to the archaeologists several times over the years. There doesn't seem to be any interest in malting and brewing archaeology.

One of the questions that I have been asking as a visitor on the public site tours and on the annual Orkney Archaeology Society tours is this: have you found any carbonised barley? I usually don't get an answer. Sometimes there is laughter at such a question. Brewing is seen as something of a joke, I fear. The photo below is taken from the recent book. It seems that carbonised naked barley has indeed been found, and in some quantity in house number 14.

It looks to me, from the photograph on page 178 from 'As It Stands', that the embryo is missing from a couple of the grains and that they are damaged. Could these be indications that the grain has been malted? And if so, could that be an indication of the sort of grain processing that was going on at the Ness? Malting the barley to make ale for the festivities and celebrations? We think tha it could be evidence for this. More analysis would certainly clarify things.

carbonised naked barley, Ness of Brodgar

Research has been recently published about techniques for the identification for malt in the archaeological record (Heiss et al 2020, Cordes et al 2021). Heiss et al look at changes in the cell walls of the aleurone layer in ancient carbonised grain and in burned cereal mashes. Cordes et al investigate pitting in individual starch granules. These have been shown to be suitable markers for malting in ancient carbonised grain. 

In the case of ancient carbonised naked barley, a detached embryo is good evidence for the grain having been germinated or malted. This can be seen without the use of scanning electron microscopy and could be a simple and useful analytical technique for archaeologists and archaeobotanists to use.



Monday, 7 September 2020

pieces from my thesis #3: conclusions

As a bit of a celebration and also to help kick start our blog again, I decided to publish some pieces of the M.Phil thesis that I wrote twenty years ago. The book has been sitting on my shelf for a while. I read it recently and, apart from new archaeological evidence and a better understanding of malt and malting technologies, there is little I would change.

There's a copy on my Researchgate page here. It's not quite like the familiar red BAR books of the International Series because I made a new front page but the rest is the same. I aim to publish some more pieces of it on this blog in the future. Other published papers and articles can also be found there.

I hear that BAR (British Archaeological Reports) will be re printing the old BAR reports and mine is one of them. So that's something to look forward to. If you have access to a University Library they should be able to obtain a copy. The previous two blog posts are the introduction and the summary and discussion. I'm happy to answer any questions, respond to comments and would love to hear from people. Get in touch via the comments section if you have something to say!

And so to the conclusions.


This research has established an assemblage and a material culture pattern for brewing activity in prehistory. Suitable buildings are required for grain storage and for malting and otherwise processing the grain. A malting floor can be made of beaten earth or clay and needs to be kept smooth and in good repair. Hearths, ovens or kilns are useful for drying the malt and as a heat source for mashing and fermentation. Suitable vessels for mashing, fermentation, storage and consumption must be made and access to running water and/or drains is essential. Such conditions and material culture are good indicators of malting, mashing and brewing activity.

Women were the very first grain cultivators and processors in the Near East, the Levant, Europe and the British Isles. Grain was a special crop because of its unique ability to produce sugars. Women, with their understanding of grain cultivation and processing rituals and their knowledge of the use of wild plants and herbs for both culinary and medicinal uses, held positions of status and significance in Neolithic society.

Brewing uses few ingredients, only requiring malted grain, herbal preservatives, water and yeast. These ingredients may survive in the archaeological record in a number of ways. Accidents in drying the malted grain, as happened at Eberdingen-Hochdorf can occur.

Residues or sediments of the brewing process may occasionally survive in unusual contexts, such as in the sealed Bronze Age cist graves at North Mains and Ashgrove. Residues of barley without any other plant remains indicate the residues that result from washing the sugars from the mashed barley or ‘sparging the wort’. Those barley residues that contain pollen or macro plant remains indicate the addition of herbs during the boil prior to fermentation.

The ease with which the barley malt and mash can be made convinces me that the manufacture of these products was a main interest and concern in the collection and cultivation of grains by Epi-Palaeolithic and Natufian cultures. The production and manufacture of this liquid product would have created a need for vessels and containers that were suitable for the storage and processing of the product, hence the bitumen lined baskets and experiments with White Ware and ceramics.

The spread of grain cultivation and processing from the Levant across Europe and into the British Isles was accompanied by a developing ceramics technology and the domestication of animals. The animals would have eaten the ‘spent grain’ with as much relish as people, adults and children ate the sweet malt products and drank the ale.



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.

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