Meeting Report: Archaeology of Beer and Brewing

Date: 
19 November 2010
Speaker(s): 
Rebecca Boyde (Archaeology Scotland)

There was a large turn-out, perhaps understandably enough when the talk to be given by Rebecca Boyde was entitled 'The Archaeology of Beer and Brewing'.

This young woman has an interesting background in that she was born in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada. Her first degree in Archaeology was from Saskatoon University; thereafter she did an MSc at Bradford; and for three years she has been with Archaeology Scotland. She is married to a Manxman.

Rebecca revealed some of the international dimensions to beer, which is made from fermented malted grains and water; sugar and flavourings such as wormwood, dogwort, bog myrtle, have served as optional additions over time.

Barley is the standard grain of modern beers because it is easier to malt but in the past wheat was used. Rye millet and sorghum can also serve as grains. The Incas used an early form of maize. Hops were introduced to the British Isles from Belgium in the 18th or 19th Centuries: previously the drink was known as 'ale'.

The brewing process can cease after different periods of time. In Africa the resultant pap after 24 hours is fed to babies to ease digestion. In Ethiopia the drink is ready in 5 days. By contrast Lambic is a very distinctive Belgian beer, which is brewed for 8 months.

The function of beer is not only to serve as a drink but also as a source of carbohydrate and therefore it is a valuable foodstuff. In the breakdown of the cellulose vitamins are produced.

It is a dietary staple in places like the Northern Cameroons. According to anthropologists it helps to create social bonds and it is found at feasts world-wide.

In the malting process the grain is steeped and then the swollen grain is spread on a floor. Malted grain has rootlets on the end and archaeologists, seeking evidence of beer-making, look out for this kind of evidence. Turning and raking take place to maintain an even temperature. Heating in a kiln dries the grain and stops the process.

Milling then takes place: Peruvians actually chew the grain at this stage and then spit it out! Saliva assists fermentation. Mashing at a temperature of 62 to 67°C produces wort, at which stage the liquid can be drunk or the sieved mash can be used as a cattle feed or to make a malt loaf.

The Sumarians in Mesopotamia from the 4th Millennium BC appear to have been the first to make beer: Dr Patrick McGovern's archaeochemical studies found the earliest chemical pattern for beer on a shard found in Iran. The Sumarians had a hymn to the goddess of brewing. In hieroglyphics a triangle on a clay tablet seems to have been used as a sign for beer.

Archaeology has thrown up an interesting array of artefacts associated with brewing and Rebecca showed a wide range of such items in her presentation. Malting floors provide evidence of former beer-making. There was a strainer from Mesopotamia; grinding stones, pestles and mortars from Africa; a quern from Skara Brae, where water drains were revealed; a wooden fork found at Prestonpans; a 17th Century wooden tankard from the West Highlands. Traquair House also had drains, 2 wooden stirrers and other equipment from a past brewery, which was in good condition. Brewing was re-established there in 1965 in the old brew house.

Barrels, and flagons were used for storage. A krug was found on the Mary Rose, which sank in 1545 and was salvaged in 1982. Transportation of beer barrels is most famously associated with Usher's brewery horses.

Archaeobotanical studies into the Scottish Neolithic period have been conducted by Merryn Dineley. In making beer at home she discovered that meadowsweet, found as a residue in a Bronze Age beaker, extended the shelf life for weeks. Delwen Samuel has conducted studies into bread and beer in ancient Egypt and residue analysis of ancient artefacts. Rebecca's own Master's research was also conducted in the field of ceramic residue analysis, a field in which she claimed that more work needs to be done.