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: