Monday 25 April 2022

If you go down to the British Museum there's a neolithic beer surprise! (until July 17th 2022)

The surprise is that there's some seriously solid evidence in the British Museum "World of Stonehenge" Exhibition that people in early Neolithic Britain were brewing beer. And it looks like it was on a large scale. The World of Stonehenge has been described as a 'once in a lifetime' experience and has taken ten years to organise. It opened on February 17th and will close on the 17th July 2022 when the exhibits will be returned to their original locations in museums all over Europe. There are fabulous gold artefacts, beautiful flints and even part of a timber circle. But the most interesting part of the exhibition, for me, is the acknowledgement that brewing beer was an important part of the Neolithic lifestyle six thousand years ago. People knew how to transform cereal grain into alcohol. It seems that this once controversial idea is now acceptable in academic archaeological circles and it's time to talk about it. Thanks to the British Museum.

What is this surprising evidence? I contacted the organisers in early February when I first heard about this forthcoming exhibition. I asked them whether malt and ale were included. The response was that, yes, they had written a few sentences on 'beer' on page 50 of the accompanying book. I wondered what that evidence could be. Graham and I have been doing research into ancient and traditional beer brewing techniques and the potential archaeological evidence for malt and ale for over twenty years. We have been arguing that there's more to grain processing than flour and bread, porridge or gruel. Grain can be malted. 

Could the evidence be the analysis of burned cereal residues on large Grooved Ware pots? Was it the discovery of carbonised malted grains, which are associated with beer brewing activity in the past? I had to buy the book to find out. It's neither of these established archaeological aspects of evidence.

"The tridents may have been used for fishing or eel trapping, or in agricultural activities as hay forks, and even as mashing forks in the process of beer brewing. It is likely that farmers were using some of their cereal harvests to make alcohol for social and religious gatherings rather than consuming only sober porridge and savoury foods." 

(Garrow, D. & Wilkin, N. The World of Stonehenge, published by The British Museum, 2022 page 50)

This is how I discovered that the archaeological evidence for beer brewing in early Neolithic Britain on display is in the shape of two very large and very solid oak tridents. They were discovered in 2008 during excavations at Stainton West, Cumbria, by Oxford Archaeology North. Details and excellent photographs of the excavations and the discoveries can be found here on their web page. As the photographs show, it was a complex and very wet and muddy dig. Wellington boots were obligatory. Congratulations to the team on their work.

Until now, apart from a few comments on social media and a private conversation, these tridents have been described as mysterious and enigmatic, a rare and unusual find. Nobody knew what they were used for. Nevertheless, they are deemed important and significant objects. Similar wooden tridents were recovered during the 19th century at Ehenside Tarn, near Ravenglass, on the Cumbrian coast of England in 1874, and another was found in a bog during excavations at Armagh in Northern Ireland (1857). These other mysterious wooden tridents are held in the British Museum stores and are, apparently, in poor condition. 

The Stainton West tridents are well preserved, having been in waterlogged conditions for 6000 years. They have been beautifully restored by experts.

(© Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust)
This image is from a news item in Archaeology, Friday December 6th 2013. see:

The two enigmatic six foot long tridents went on display at the Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle, in 2013. They attracted quite a lot of attention. Here, above, is a photo of them in the original display case taken from an article in Archaeology magazine, December 2013. You can find more images on the internet by searching for 'neolithic tridents'. 

There was talk on social media. Archaeologists argued, as they often do, about what they might have been. It's difficult to find these discussions now. Some of the places where it was discussed (eg Past Horizons) no longer exist. If you can find any from this time then do let us know! Suggestions from archaeologists and historians included eel spears, hay forks or supports for fishing nets.

I suggested that they may have been mash forks, similar to those used by Arnold of Soissons, the patron saint of brewing. A mash fork is one of the traditional symbols of the brewer. These wooden "tridents" would have been ideal as mash forks. That's the tool used for stirring the crushed malt into hot water in the mash tun, a crucial part of the beer brewing process, the saccharification, when the malt sugars are made. Sometimes referred to as a mash rake, it is a piece of equipment that is crucial to the 'mashing in' stage of the brewing process. Don't confuse it with a malt rake, which is a tool the maltster uses to rake and turn the grain on the germination or malting floor.

This is a well known image that many brewers and brewing historians are familiar with. It's a stained glass window in the Sainte-Glossinde Chapel in Metz, Moselle, France, that depicts St Arnold (1040-1087) with Bishop's mitre and his mash fork.

The idea of tridents as mash forks was an idea that was not taken very seriously at the time. But, interestingly, I was not the only person to suggest mash forks or an early form of mashing rake. Here's a comment on the article on The History Blog entitled "Mysterious wood tridents on display" from 2013:

Sophie must be a brewer. She knows what a mash fork is. In her comment she gives two links, one to St Arnold of Soissons and another that shows the brewer's traditional tools of the trade. These are a malt shovel for turning the germinating grain on the malting floor, a mash fork (or rake) for the mash tun and a long handled brewer's ladle. The mash rake in this image has struts to strengthen it.


Mash fork design has developed over the years. Modern brewers still use them. Here is a photo of Catalonian brewer Carlos Rodriguez, standing beside the mash tun and holding a mash fork, as described by Martyn Cornell, renowned beer writer and brewing historian. Some brewers might call it a mash paddle. Whatever the name might be, it serves the same function as the 6000 year old wooden tridents from Stainton West, Ehenside Tarn and Armargh. 

"Carlos Rodriguez holds his mash fork inside the Agullons brewery, one of the first microbreweries in Catalonia, founded in 2005 at his masia (the typical Catalan farmhouse) in Sant Joan de Mediona. The first thought of any visitor to the gravity-powered brewery, which looks like an overgrown shed alongside the farmhouse, and will make only 500 litres at a time, is: ‘Whoa! Can anything decent be brewed here?’ Fears are driven far away as soon as Rodriguez’s beers are tasted: he may be self-taught, but his English-style pale ales and Belgian-style spontaneous fermentation beers are as good as you’ll find" Thanks to Martyn Cornell, Zythophile, for use of this image and his words.
The neolithic tridents, carved from planks of solid oak, would have been fit for purpose as mash forks 6000 years ago. Their potential function as mash forks is a practical interpretation, far more likely than eel spears, hay forks or fishing net supports. Here is a description of the tridents written in 2019 by the archaeologists who discovered them. The woodworking techniques alone are impressive. 
"The two early Neolithic fork-shaped tridents were amongst the most fascinating and enigmatic artefacts from Stainton West. They may have been fishing spears, paddles, net anchors, agricultural forks or even mash forks (for brewing beer). Whatever their use, both had obviously been deliberately placed, at the eastern end of the channel, indicating that they were significant objects.

The tridents had been expertly crafted, using stone tools, from single radially split planks, cut from mature oak trees. A long shaft was tapered at one end, at the other end widening into two projecting wings, or steps, and then three, long, tapering tines. Only one of Trident 1's tines survived, while one tine from Trident 2 had broken off, but remained closely associated with the object. Both tridents were approximately 2m long and would have been heavy, unwieldy objects, made from logs that were much larger than strictly necessary; these appear to have had near-identical diameters of 0.4m. These logs had been split in half, then into quarters, and finally eighths, forming a wedge sectioned plank."
from Bridging Time's Deep River, An archaeological journey along the Carlisle Northern Development Route. Pub Oxford Archaeology Ltd. 2019, page 32. 

This is the first time that I can find a published reference to "mash forks (used for brewing beer)". Until 2019 this idea was, as far as I know, only discussed on social media. In 2018 I had a private conversation with one of the Oxford Archaeology North team on Twitter, giving them details of mash forks, their design and function in the brewing process. The next thing I know it's an accepted interpretation in the World of Stonehenge, both in the British Museum and in the book. I'm still trying to figure out how a private twitter conversation in 2018 becomes a possible interpretation in the British Museum Exhibition. There is no acknowledgement or detail about where this new interpretation came from. 

Nevertheless, as I wrote earlier, many thanks are due to archaeologists of Oxford Archaeology, to the British Museum curators of the exhibition and to the authors of the World of Stonehenge book. They have corroborated our idea that, in the Neolithic, cereals were cultivated to make malt, malt sugars and ale rather than flour, bread, porridge, gruel or even pastry for mince pies, as has been suggested recently by archaeologists at English Heritage. It seems that they have completely missed the fact that grain can be malted and mashed to make malt sugars and wort for fermentation, even though we wrote a blog about it for them.

A mash fork needs a mash tun.

When Graham makes beer he "mashes in" using a small five gallon mash tun. A long handled plastic spoon is enough to agitate the mash as crushed malt is added to the hot water. These 6000 year old neolithic tridents are around six feet long. Obviously, they would have been used in a very large mash tun. Given that the archaeologists excavated five burnt mounds, with evidence of associated troughs, at Stainton West there is no need to look further for a potential mash tun. I have asked the archaeologists for more details on the troughs and was told that they measured roughly 2x1.5m. I was not given a measurement of the depth. They are probably a similar depth to most burnt mound troughs and may have held a volume of 200 to 400 litres. 

The first archaeologists to suggest that the troughs at burnt mound sites were used as mash tuns were Declan Moore and Billy Quinn from The Moore Group, based in County Galway, Ireland, where these sites are known as fulacht fiadh. Billy and Declan did all the research and followed it through with practical experiments and demonstrations. In 2008 they did an impressive presentation at the World Archaeology Conference (6) in Dublin. I was happy to help out. They had made a large wooden trough, sealed it with bitumen, and heated stones in a fire, using a garden fork to transfer them into the trough. Crushed malted barley was added to the hot water, a traditional technique to mash in. It was a successful mash and a spectacular demonstration.

The Moore Group added hot rocks to a trough using a garden fork at WAC 6 Dublin 2007.   

I was inspired by their demonstration and told Graham about it when I got home. He built a small trough and we demonstrated the technique at the Tomb of the Eagles Visitor Centre, Orkney, later that year. In 2010 we were invited by Lauren Doughton to do demonstration in the replica stone trough at Bressay, one of the Shetland islands. She was investigating possible uses of fire cracked stones, burnt mounds and troughs for her PhD thesis which was completed in 2014. Our mash was successful. You can find more details on trough mashing in the Neolithic and Bronze Age here.
Our Bressay strike in 2010: hot water, crushed malt, stone trough and a garden fork. We used 200 litres of water and 50kg of crushed malt.  
I know of another successful trough mash by David Chapman of Ancient Arts. In 2010 he demonstrated the technique. An article published in the magazine British Archaeology announced 'Burnt mound theory tested to perfection'. 
It must be said that, since these archaeological experiments, brewing historians Lars Marius Garshol and Mika Laitinen have documented the ancient and traditional practice of hot rock mashing. I wrote a piece about the ancient magic of malt for the EXARC Journal last year. In beer brewing circles and amongst many traditional brewers all over the world hot rock mashing is now an acknowledged and regularly practiced mashing in technique. 
There is so much online about the use of hot stones in the brewing process that I am surprised that the archaeologists who excavated Stainton West burnt mounds are unaware of it. Instead they go for the consensus archaeological interpretation that burnt mounds represent a sauna, sweat lodge or steam bath. These kinds of bathing facilities use large stones. A small amount of water is used to create steam. Troughs at burnt mound sites are deep and large, can contain a lot of water and small stones are used to heat it. They shatter and crack under the heat shock of immersion. There is no comparison between a sauna, sweat lodge or steam bath and a hot rock mash tun.
A similar mistake has been made in the interpretation of some Viking sites. Buildings and installations have been identified as bath houses and saunas when, in fact, it is the brew house that has been excavated. Graham wrote a blog about this and we have an article in the EXARC Journal, published in 2013. That's another story though. 

Excavations at Stainton West reveal a lot of evidence for the transformation of grain into malt, malt sugars and ale in the early Neolithic through to the Bronze Age. It helps to understand the beer brewing process in order to identify it. As well as the wooden tridents as mash forks there are several mash tuns, lots of fire cracked stones and a piece of pottery from a large Grooved Ware pot (suitable for fermentation).
Finally, there is evidence for a large Neolithic ceremonial monument close by the meander in the river Eden, where Stainton West is situated. This takes us back to the comments made in the World of Stonehenge book (page 50) where the authors propose the idea that "it is likely that farmers were using some of their cereal harvests to make alcohol for social and religious gatherings."
So, to conclude, it's quite clear to us what sort of alcohol they were making and how they were making it. Here's a map of the excavations at Stainton West, taken from the CNDR booklet that Oxford Archaeology North sent to me, in digital form. It shows the river Eden, the extent of excavations and the proximity of a Neolithic ceremonial centre, indicated by a henge on the map below. 

Map of Stainton West excavations from
Bridging Time's Deep River, produced by Oxford Archaeology North 2019, p 38

There are Neolithic ceremonial sites throughout the British Isles. It seems that ceremonies included the transformation of grain into malt, malt sugars and ale to be consumed and enjoyed at places like Stonehenge and Durrington Walls, where caried pig teeth indicate that pigs were fed spent grain. Other sites include the Ring of Brodgar, the Ness of Brodgar, Stones of Stenness and the Barnhouse settlement, Callanish, Arbor Low and many many more. Some of the best archaeological evidence comes from these excavations at Stainton West. But you have to know what to look for, understand the brewing process and interpret what you find.

As we have said many times, if archaeologists are looking for a ritual activity then they need to look no further than malting, mashing and the fermentation of a sweet wort. 

The recognition and acknowledgement from archaeologists at Oxford Archaeology North and from the curators of the World of Stonehenge Exhibition at the British Museum that these wooden tridents may have been used as mash forks is good news. If this is the case then they are the oldest mash forks that have yet been discovered in Britain.

It's time to talk seriously about grain processing technologies of the Neolithic. Comments and questions to this, or any of our blogs, are welcome.