The Archaeology of Beer

Yes, gentle readers, it is indeed 5 o’clock somewhere, even in the ancient world. It is an established fact that our ancient counterparts knew how to get down properly, and of course, one will be in need of some quality refreshment whilst raging into the night. It’s just how it goes. I now present to you a brief history of beer. So crack open a cold one of your choice, gentle reader, and enjoy the fruits of my digital labor and the hard work of the folks of the ancient Near East.

Beer People
Yes! There actually was a group of humans called the Beer People! Or at least that’s what we refer to them as these days. The Beer People got their name because of the high quantity of beer containment devices (read: cups) that were always found at sites dating to the time period. I’m pretty sure this was during one of the Intermediate Bronze Ages, but I’ll have to dig for some of my old notebooks to get the correct dates…Anyhoo, during the long, dark teatime that was the transitional periods these folks realized that one of the best things they could have was beer. And lots of it. They made it a point to craft all kinds of sturdy mugs and containers so that their beer would have a safe home. Perhaps you’d like to see some of their wares? You should really check out the LMU Archaeology Center. Just throwing that out there. (Hey guys!! *waves madly*)

Yet another group of people who knew how to get down. Mesopotamia as a whole got on the brewing bandwagon pretty promptly and proceeded to perfect the art for all to enjoy. The even had a goddess to preside over beer matters! Ninkasi had a specific prayer, “The Hymn to Ninkasi”, which served as both a song and a nifty method of remembering the recipe for beer. Ninkasi, or Nin-kasi, whichever you prefer, had the mighty task of providing beer for the other gods and for the temples to be used in rituals. There is a particular matter that may or may not be part of the sacred marriage ritual that involves beer, two participants and sexy times. The good people of Mesopotamia felt the need to commemorate these moments and have brought joy to the lives of museum curators and archaeology students everywhere. Let us now take a moment to enjoy this artwork.

photo courtesy of the LMU Archaeology Center

Now that we’re all feeling better about ourselves and life in general, here’s some facts about this lovely scene: It’s Old Babylonian, so that puts it between 2000 and 1750 BC, it’s made of quality clay and clearly depicts what was the preferred method of beer drinking, which was through a long reed straw. The straw was actually quite necessary because ancient brewing involved the use of bread to begin the fermentation process, thus creating a layer of STUFF on top of the beer. You could either strain the beer into another vessel to remove the top layer, or you could just stick a straw in and enjoy.
Beer was such a staple in Mesopotamian life that the Code of Hammurabi (or Hammurapi) included laws regulating beer and beer parlors so that citizens would be encouraged to enjoy their beer responsibly.
It should also be noted that the good folks at the Anchor Steam Brewing Co. had a Sumerian Beer Project…and there’s the Ninkasi Brewing Company in Eugene, Oregon!

Last but definitely not least, it’s the Egyptians! They too had a special place in their hearts (and mugs) for beer. Osiris made it a point to teach the people of Egypt to brew beer before he left to go govern the Afterlife, so beer was viewed as one of those very important parts of culture that everyone rather enjoyed.

hqtjar determinative
hqt, or rather…beer

Like the folks in Mesopotamia, the Egyptians brewed their beer using bread as a key ingredient in the fermentation process. This led to the creation of a certain mold called penicillin which meant that their beer, in addition to being delicious and a fine beverage, was actually good for them too! Ancient beer was full of all kinds of things, including barley, emmer wheat and the occasional bug (things were done outside then…) so there were actually a good number of beneficial proteins, vitamins, carbohydrates, etc. The other bonus was that the alcohol content killed off a fair number of harmful microbes which meant that beer was often safer to drink than water! Fun fact: pyramid workers were often paid in beer. I will also add here that there is absolutely nothing better in life than being on a felucca going up the Nile with a cold Stella in one hand and a view of blue(ish) water, green reeds and random cows in front of you. It really is the best. Oh, right…there’s a blog happening. Yes, ancient beer was actually good and good for you! Egyptian bread beer also required a fair amount of filtering before consumption, as it too had a nice layer of stuff on top. Strainers were commonly used, as were straws for more immediate enjoyment. Everyone from the average farmer to the pharaoh made it a point of enjoying the finest of seasonal brews and the act of brewing was such an integral part of the culture that it was captured in tiny wooden model form so that deceased Egyptians could continue to brew beer in the afterlife! Awesome? I think so. One of these wooden tomb models is on the right, so you can see exactly what I’m talking about. Here we seem to have some mixing and fermenting going on, which was indeed a team effort. These little guys were meant to help out in the afterlife and do all the work so that the owner of the tomb would only have to worry about relaxing and enjoying a nice brew after the harrowing ordeal that was surviving the original journey through the many gates and trials of the underworld.
In case you were curious, the Egyptians also had wine making down to an art, and wrote it as such: yrpvine determinative

So, dear readers, we can indeed conclude that ancient peoples, like us modern ones, enjoyed a nice beer. I will leave you with what might be the highlight of the post, which is a link to the recipe used by the infamous Egyptian Beer Experiment. Happy brewing!