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.



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