Archaeologist attempts to revive lost alcoholic beverages from ancient recipes and residues
An archaeologist working with a brewery is recreating ancient beers from around the world, including Turkey, Egypt, Italy, Denmark, Honduras and China. Alcohol archaeologist Patrick McGovern thinks he may even be able to recreate a drink from Egypt that is 16,000 years old.
McGovern, of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, has been working with Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware. The professor is using modern technology to detect traces of ingredients. In addition, Dogfish Head Brewery has produced beer using African, South American and Finnish recipes from centuries ago.
Archaeologist Patrick McGovern
Others have been attempting to brew and make wine. In 2013, Great Lakes Brewery in Ohio, with the help of archaeologists in Chicago, tried to brew a Sumerian beer whose recipe dated back 5,000 years.
Beginning in 2012, Great Lakes tried to replicate the Sumerian beer using only a wooden spoon and clay vessels modeled after artifacts excavated in Iraq. They successfully malted barley on the roof of the brew house and also used a bricklike “beer bread” for the active yeast. Current results have yielded a beer full of bacteria, warm and slightly sour.
Ingredients of beer in the ancient brewery of Le Cateau Cambrésis, France, including water, malt, barley and yeast (Georges Jansoone photo/Wikimedia Commons)
Beer seems to have been an important part of Sumerian culture: the word beer appears in many contexts relating to religion, medicine and myth. In fact, the oldest documentary evidence of beer comes from a 6,000-year-old Sumerian tablet depicting people drinking a beverage through reed straws from a communal bowl, and the oldest surviving beer recipe can be found in a 3,900-year-old ancient Sumerian poem honoring Ninkasi, the goddess of brewing, fertility and the harvest. The poem describes how bappir, Sumerian bread, is mixed with “aromatics” to ferment in a big vat.
The production of beer in Mesopotamia is a controversial topic in archaeological circles. Some believe that beer was discovered by accident and that a piece of bread or grain could have become wet and a short time later, it began to ferment into an inebriating pulp. However, others believe that the technique of brewing beer was an early technological achievement and may have even predated the Sumerians in the lowlands of the Mesopotamian alluvial plane.
Now McGovern is extracting alcoholic beverage ingredients from residue on ancient pottery at archaeological sites worldwide and studying references in documents. He has been resurrecting beers and beverages that had been forgotten.
“He detected traces of various ingredients left by the drinks - including barley, honey, herbs and spices - using a number of methods including liquid chromatography, gas chromatography and mass spectrometry,” says an article the DailyMail.co.uk.
Princess Nefertiabet depicted with a beer jug in front of her face, 4th Dynasty, 2590-2565 B.C. (Photo by Mbzt/Wikimedia Commons)
The first drink McGovern and Dogfish Head brewed was what they called Midas Touch. The recipe is from molecular evidence from residues in what scholars think is King Midas’ Turkish tomb from 700 B.C. Midas Touch beer is made with barley malt, white muscat grapes, honey and saffron.
“A variety of alcoholic residues have been found inside important tombs around the world - suggesting that they were drinks used during celebrations or rituals and perhaps even to wish good luck to the dead in the afterlife,” the Daily Mail article states.
It’s not just beer that archaeologists are trying to recreate. Ancient-Origins.net reported in 2013 that Italian archaeologists planted a vineyard near Catania in Sicily with the aim of making wine using techniques from classical Rome described in ancient texts. The team expected its first vintage within four years.
Ancient gold wineglass in the Georgia wine museum (Luciana Braz photo/Wikimedia Commons)
In order to replicate conditions used in Roman times, modern chemicals will not be used on the crop and the vines will be planted using wooden Roman tools and fastened with canes and broom.
Instead of fermenting in barrels, the wine will be placed in large terracotta pots – traditionally big enough to hold a man – which are buried to the neck in the ground, lined inside with beeswax to make them impermeable and left open during fermentation before being sealed shut with clay or resin.
The research team will make two types of wine – the type once used for the nobles, which was sweetened with honey and water, and the type made for slaves, which was more vinegary.
The history of wine spans thousands of years and is closely intertwined with the history of agriculture, cuisine, civilization and humanity itself. Archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest known wine production occurred in what is now the country of Georgia around 7000 BCE, with other notable sites in Greater Iran and Greece, dated at 4500 BCE.
It appears McGovern was one of the earlier researchers to use modern technology in the ancient beverage field. He has been working with Dogfish Head Brewery since 2001 to recreate ancient beers.
But there is a reference at thekeep.org about a 1996 attempt by Newcastle Breweries in Melbourne to brew an ancient Egyptian beer.
“The Herald-Sun reported that 'Tutankhamon Ale' will be based on sediment from jars found in a brewery housed in the Sun Temple of Nefertiti, and the team involved has gathered enough of the correct raw materials to produce just 1000 bottles of the ale,” Caroline Seawright wrote at thekeep.org. That beer was 5 to 6 percent alcohol and was sold at Harrods for £50 (about $100) a bottle. The profit was to go toward further research into Egyptian beer making.”
Featured image: Proto-cuneiform recording the allocation of beer, probably from southern Iraq, Late Prehistoric period, about 3100-3000 BC (Flickr photo)
By Mark Miller