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Finding Magic in Real Ale

TitleFinding Magic in Real Ale
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication1996
AuthorsDINELEY, M.
Secondary AuthorsFAIRBAIRN, A. S.
JournalBritish Archaeology
PublisherCouncil for British Archaeology (CBA)
Place PublishedYork
Type of Articlearticle
Publication LanguageEnglish
ISSN Number1357-4442

The first farmers may have grown barley to brew ale. Merryn Dineley reports

Our traditional view of the Neolithic is that it was the period in which people first learned to grow cereal crops, such as barley, in order to make bread and porridge. In a recent article in British Archaeology, however, the archaeological scientist Mike Richards wrote that, on the evidence of bone analysis, meat was more important than grain in the British Neolithic diet (`First farmers with no taste for grain', March).

He postulated an animal-based Neolithic economy, but pointed nevertheless to the evidence for small-scale grain production. This grain, he suggested, was grown for ritual purposes - but he hazarded no guesses as to what these rituals actually involved. Might the grain have been grown, in fact, for brewing? And might ale have been a significant part of these rituals?

My research suggests that brewing could well have been an important part of British Neolithic domestic and ritual life. We know that the Sumerians were making ale in the 3rd millennium BC and that the Egyptians were fermenting date wine and ale at a similar time. The Sumerians had a goddess of brewing, Ninkasi, and a tablet inscribed with a verse singing her praises has been found at Nippur, dated to c 1800BC. It seems to describe Sumerian brewing methods; and this `recipe' was followed by Solomon Katz and Fritz Maytag of the Anchor Breweries of California in 1991, producing a drinkable and effective brew that was aptly called `Ninkasi'. More recently, Scottish and Newcastle Breweries, in association with researchers from Cambridge University, made Tutankhamun Ale, again a drinkable and sweet brew.

But what of brewing in Britain and Europe? Whereas in Egypt, dry conditions allow organic residues, even yeasts, to survive and be analysed, in Britain acidic soils and wet climate conspire to destroy the fragile evidence of brewing. However, a deposit of organic material identified as the possible remains of a brewed drink was found in a beaker at North Mains, Strathallan, during excavations in 1978/9. The site was a timber circle, bank and ditch (dated to 2330 ± 60BC, in the transitional period between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age) together with several later Bronze Age cist burials. The beaker lay in one of these, accompanying the skeleton of a young woman aged around 25 years. The cist, situated in the centre of the timber circle, had remained partially sealed, hence the unusual survival of the organic material. Pollen analysis revealed a cereal-based drink flavoured with meadowsweet - perhaps something between mead and ale since meadowsweet is known as a flavouring of mead. The radiocarbon date was 1540 ± 65BC.

In addition, plant debris survived inside a beaker in a Bronze Age cist at Ashgrove in Fife, the slabs of which had been carefully sealed with clay. Pollen analysis revealed large amounts of immature lime pollen and meadowsweet, which again was interpreted as the possible remains of mead, but was unfortunately not radiocarbon-dated.

Analysis of organic residues on pottery found near the stone circle at Machrie Moor, Arran, also revealed immature pollen - probably from broken-up flower heads - interpreted as possibly indicating the presence of mead or honey; although it was not possible to recreate recipes from the remains, nor to accurately date them.

Each of these examples of the organic residues of Bronze Age brewing - the only ones I know from Britain - was found in a ritual rather than a domestic context. So what significance could ale have had in Bronze Age or Neolithic ritual? Maybe it was believed to have healing properties, or it was drunk to reach a state of intoxication on special occasions such as funerals or other ceremonial events.

The process of brewing itself could also have given the brew a `magical' significance. The fundamental methods of brewing have remained unchanged for millennia. Raw barley grain contains `locked' sugar in the form of starch. During germination, enzymes are formed which can convert this starch into sugars which can be fermented; but germination has to be stopped at the right point and the grain dried out. In the next process, medieval and modern European brewers mixed the dried grain with warm water, in order to convert the remaining starch to sugars, but Sumerian and Egyptian brewers made barley cakes which were baked, mixed with water, sieved, and the resulting sweet liquor fermented in large jars.

Fermentation was not understood until 1857, when Pasteur discovered it was caused by a living microorganism, yeast. His work was continued by John Tyndall who, in 1876, delivered a lecture in which he referred to the `art and practice of prehistoric brewers' being based on `empirical observation' - they knew what to do, but not why. It is easy to imagine an element of magic, and a potential ritual significance, being given to the `magical transformation' that was the art of brewing.

Merryn Dineley is a post-graduate student of archaeology at Manchester University