Beer was in popular consumption nearly 3,500 years ago in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), a new study has revealed. Published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the paper has highlighted evidence that shows the Late Bronze Age inhabitants of Mesopotamia enjoyed drinking barley beer, much like we do today.
The research was conducted by an international team of archaeologists, led by Dr. Claudia Glatz of the University of Glasgow and Professor Jesse Casana of Dartmouth College. Since 2016, the team has been overseeing excavations at Khani Masi – a Bronze Age site situated in the valley of the Upper Diyala River in northeastern Iraq – as part of the Sirwan Regional Project (SRP).
While surveying the area recently, the researchers came across remains of numerous pottery vessels, dating back to the Late Bronze Age. Analysis of these pottery fragments, in turn, revealed the presence of chemical compounds indicative of a barley-based fermented drink.
Historically, it is hypothesized that beer (or at least the precursor to beer-like concoctions) was probably developed independently in different parts of the world. In fact, some believe that beer was actually the by-product of cereal-based agriculture, with natural fermentation playing its part in the ‘accidental’ lead up to the brewing. This dawn of proto-beer making possibly harks back to the early Neolithic period, circa 9500 BC.
However, historians now believe that the oldest known standard recipe for brewing beer actually came from ancient Mesopotamia. In fact, the recipe was discovered last year within a 3900-year-old poem – Hymn to Ninkasi. According to researchers, Ninkasi was the name of the ancient Sumerian tutelary goddess of beer (and alcohol).
Different cuneiform sources and iconography from the region point to barley beer being a staple of the Mesopotamian diet. Up until now, it was believed that people of Mesopotamia consumed the fermented drink during feasts and rituals, probably from large communal bowls through reed drinking straws. However, in the new study titled “Revealing invisible brews: A new approach to the chemical identification of ancient beer”, the researchers stated –
Our analytical results also allow us, for the first time and with confidence, to ascribe a diverse range of drinking equipment to the consumption of beers and in so doing track a significant transformation in Mesopotamian drinking practices.
Although beer was made and consumed communally in Mesopotamia as far back as circa 3500 BC (or possibly even before), the new research claims that, by 1400 BC, beer drinking had become somewhat of an individual experience. As such, archaeologists have discovered small drinking cups and goblets that, they believed, were used to drink barley beer. Elaborating further, Dr. Claudia Glatz, a Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Glasgow, said –
Our results present a significant advance in the study of ancient Near Eastern beer brewing and consumption practices. They also provide us with unprecedented new insights into Mesopotamia’s cultural relationships with the Upper Diyala River valley, a strategic communication corridor between Mesopotamia and the Zagros mountains that formed part of the later Silk Roads and that we have only recently begun to explore systematically.
As part of the study, the researchers from Glasgow University developed a new analytical technique to chemically identify beer in Late Bronze Age drinking vessels for the very first time. Shedding more light on the findings, Dr. Jaime Toney of the university’s School of Geographical and Earth Sciences averred –
Using gas chromatography, we were able to detect and measure a suite of co-occurring fossil compounds that are diagnostic of beer. We show that this suite of fossil compounds match those found in modern barley beer – identifying for the first time an important method for revealing the presence of beer, even when there is no visible evidence such as beerstone.
Beerstone, for the uninitiated, is a grayish-white crystalline sediment that forms on the inside of fermentation and storage vats used for brewing beer. Scientifically, it is a precipitate of calcium oxalate and protein. To help archaeologists accurately discover beer traces, the academics from Glasgow University have now formulated a protocol for field-based sampling of such vessels. Speaking on the matter, Elsa Perruchini, a Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Scholarship-funded Ph.D. student at the university, added –
Our novel, multi-stage methodology, provides an easy-to-implement field-sampling and analytical approach that significantly enhances the reliably of organic residue analysis results in archaeology. Simply put, with our new on-site sampling strategy, we avoid sample contamination from things like human skin oils or modern products such as sunscreen by using cotton gloves and sterilised tweezers to handle sample vessels, which are then immediately wrapped in sterilised aluminium foil. The use of control samples as well as comparison with modern day food items is also crucial in our methodology.
The Sirwan Regional Project is focussed on exploring the archaeological landscape in and around the Diyala the river in the Kurdish Region of Iraq.
Source/Image Credits: University of Glasgow