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News Item: Beer Brewing formed part of Neolithic Ceremonies

TitleNews Item: Beer Brewing formed part of Neolithic Ceremonies
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication1997
AuthorsDINELEY, M.
Secondary AuthorsFAIRBAIRN, A. S.
JournalBritish Archaeology
PublisherCouncil for British Archaeology (CBA)
Place PublishedYork
Type of Articlearticle
Publication LanguageEnglish
ISSN Number1357-4442

Beer brewing "formed part of Neolithic ceremonies"

Getafix, the fictional druid in the Asterix cartoon series, whose main task was to brew a magic potion for his fellow Iron Age villagers, may have been following a centuries-old ceremonial tradition of "ritual brewing" dating from as far back as the Neolithic, according to new research.

Ritual brewing, it has been claimed, may have been one of the main activities that took place at sacred Neolithic ceremonies in the 3rd millennium BC. According to Merryn Dineley, a research student specialising in the prehistory of brewing at Manchester University, a Neolithic priestbrewer would have needed nothing but barley, an oven or hearth, and a large fire-proof pot in order to make beer, all of which are regularly found together at Neolithic ritual sites. "Grooved ware" pottery, sometimes regarded as ritual in function, would have been well suited to the task, Mrs Dineley said.

The idea that beer was brewed in the Neolithic comes from the view that barley may have been first grown in Britain for ritual reasons, rather than as a staple food (see BA, November 1996). The possible organic remains of a brewed drink have been found at three Bronze Age sites in Scotland, all of them ritual sites. Moreover, beer is known to have been brewed in the 3rd millennium BC by the Sumerians.

The association of beer-making with bucket-shaped grooved ware pottery, however, is new. Grooved ware, which is thought to have originated in Orkney but later spread all over Britain, is typically found deliberately broken and buried at ritual sites such as henges. On Orkney it is known from the ritual sites of the Stones of Stenness and Barnhouse, where, unusually, one pot has been found intact buried up to its neck in the ground. According to Mrs Dineley, flat-bottomed grooved ware pots holding one to six gallons are an ideal size for fermentation. Those on Orkney were heavily gritted with volcanic rock, which would have allowed them to withstand the repeated heating and cooling necessary for a successful brew.

The Egyptian method of beer-making, which may have been used in Britain, was to mix part-germinated barley grains and water into barley cakes, and to bake the cakes in an oven or hearth to complete the malting process. These cakes, when mixed again with water and yeast, could be fermented into beer. This process might have been regarded as a "magical transformation", Mrs Dineley said. "As the beer ferments, it seems to come alive."

Brewing tests have shown that the addition of meadowsweet extends the shelf-life of beer made this way by several weeks. Meadowsweet was one component of the possible prehistoric brews discovered in Scotland, and meadowsweet residues have been found on some grooved ware pottery. Pollen analysis shows it was abundant in Neolithic Orkney.