Original Microbrews: From Egypt to Peru, Archaeologists Are Unearthing Breweries from Long Ago

By Lock, Carrie | Science News, October 2, 2004 | Go to article overview

Original Microbrews: From Egypt to Peru, Archaeologists Are Unearthing Breweries from Long Ago


Lock, Carrie, Science News


Beer is nearly as old as civilization itself. It's mentioned in Sumerian texts from more than 5,000 years ago. Starting in the 1950s, scientists have debated the notion that beer, not bread, was actually the impetus for the development of agriculture. Nearly every culture around the world has invented its own local concoction. Historically, brewing was a home-based operation, as part of the preparation of meals. From South America to the Middle East, beer production grew in scale with the rise of organized societies, scientists theorize, and later became primarily a function of the state. Beer was given to laborers or soldiers, incorporated into religious ceremonies, and drank by politicians at state functions.

Almost all of what scientists know about beer's history, however, is based on written evidence and drawings, including Egyptian hieroglyphs, Roman tablets, and European frescoes. Such works tell, for example, that thousands of years ago in Iraq, each city-state had its own brew master, says anthropologist James L. Phillips of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

While drinking vessels that probably held beer have been found here and there at archaeological sites around the globe, little physical evidence has been found for large-scale breweries.

"I'm sure they're there," says Phillips. "They've just never been excavated."

Archaeologists in Peru are now optimistic that they're on the track of an ancient, large-scale brewery. They've unearthed and identified tantalizing signs that rival those pieced together at other sites around the world. Because Peruvians have long consumed an unusual type of beer, the scientists expect to determine the site's use conclusively by looking for chemical signatures of that beer that are not available for the usual malt brew.

ALCOHOL UNDERGROUND Physical evidence of ancient beer brewing isn't easy to come b~: In most cultures, home beer making required only basic ingredients, a fire, a few cooking vessels, and some storage jars. None of these materials is unique to brewing. Jars found near a kiln could have been used to store barley or wheat for baking bread, and cooking pots could have been for heating any liquid.

To be unambiguous, a large-scale brewery site would contain storage vats and fermenting pots much larger than for home use and kilns that could heat large volumes of liquid.

Archaeologists so far haven't unearthed a complete set of evidence. One of the oldest and best-attested potential breweries is at Hierakonpolis in southern Egypt and dates to 5,000 years ago, says Barry Kemp, an Egytologist from the University of Cambridge in England.

At the site, Kemp's team found large, well-heated conical vats that were encrusted on the inside with a cereal-based residue, says Kemp's colleague Delwen Samuel, an archaeobotanist at University College London. The vats appeared to have been permanent structures, indicating a large-scale operation, and their shape suggests that they held liquid, which doesn't jibe with baking, she says.

Another ancient brewery may be el-Amarna, along the Nile in middle Egypt. The city was the capital of ancient Egypt nearly 3,500 years ago, during the reign of King Tutankhamen's father, Akhenaton. The archaeological site is located in what is thought to be the Sun Temple of Nefertiti, Akhenaton's wife. Kemp and his colleagues found a complex of rooms that had been used for cereal processing. Ovens, charred grains, jars, and larger vessels indicate that the rooms were either a brewery or a bakery.

"No piece of equipment survives that can be unequivocally linked to brewing," says Samuel, who studied the el-Amarna site with Kemp. "Bread and beer were staples of the ancient Egyptians, so it's a matter of inference."

However, writing and drawings from the site tip the scale toward breweries, she says.

In a different corner of the world, excavators at an English site called Vindolanda found a potential brewery dating from the times of the Roman Empire. …

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