Beer, history and archaeology 1

Beer History and Archaeology is a blend of fiction and fact. This amalgamation seems appropriate given the title and I thought I would try to merge writing as entertainment with writing as knowledge. For all those interested in brewing, beer and pubs, I would hope this piece enlightens a smile.

Dedicated to the king of a proper trench and lover of a real ale, Phil Harding.

Beer, History and Archaeology.

Anyone with a really serious appreciation of beer, especially the traditional ales found in the U.K., will usually have a naturally symbiotic love of history. This isn’t some sort of strange psychological theory, it is just that beer and beer drinking has been embedded in our history for a lot longer than is generally understood. Consequently, a love of the subject of beer incorporates, to a greater or lessor degree, a love of history. Beer, history and archaeology are natural bedfellows!

Let’s be honest about this, anatomically modern humans have been around for 200,000 years and if you think they have only been drinking beer since the 16th century licensing laws were introduced then you are out of touch. This lack of tactile knowledge should not be placed at the hearth of the individual alone but probably has to be considered as a potential failure of the practice of archaeology and could be interpreted as an inability to explain itself properly.

Archaeologists, often known to indulge a beer themselves, are trained never to express anything as a certainty. If you ask an archaeologist if he/she want’s another beer, even then they can’t be authoritative:

“Maybe I could have one more.”

or even

“Well there could be seen to be a case to go to the bar again.”

You will never get a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ from an archaeologist. It is as though they have been genetically modified to be vague. The reason for this stringent indoctrination is linked directly to the fact that many archaeologists like a beer. They are terrified of the possibility that late on a Friday night, after a day digging trenches in waterlogged peat somewhere near the M6 (they never disclose where the dig actually is), they may hear themselves shouting above the noise in the pub;

“I’m telling you Tony, what we have is the most important Iron Age ceremonial site ever discovered in Britain”

Only to wake up the next morning with a sore head and reading the expert report over breakfast which states that the ancient ceremonial bowl fragment is actually a bit of Victorian sewer pipe. Consequently, unless a piece of evidence appears with complete stratigraphical provenance, associated with date stamped coins and a note from an expert in the field saying that the find is probably similar to a possibly identical example in the Ashmolean museum in Oxford, then and only then, will an archaeologist say,

“We could be dealing with the genuine article here!”

As beer drinkers, interested in beer history and beer archaeology, the problem is that if you are hanging around a nice cave, leaning on a boulder, discussing the latest mammoth hunt, your beer is being drunk in an elk horn having been served, cave temperature naturally, from the cured bladder of an Aurochs. The issue here, for the archaeologist, is that such items do not necessarily preserve well in the layer. The bladder is completely bio-degradable and just disappears whilst a drinking horn is just a drinking horn. Even if they found antlers carved into exotic looking ‘hand-pumps’ they would still say,

“Possibly a ritual item.”

The upshot of all of this is that there is a limit to what archaeologists can tell us about our beer drinking history. The mistake is to think that this limit is reflective of the moment we started to ferment liquids or create ‘pubs’. Fortunately, recent advances in our sciences are starting to help the spade-jockey to become a bit more certain about what has happened in the past.

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 When the boat comes in

Adventures into assuredness can be seen with the 2015 research into an 1840’s shipwreck by a team of scientists from Finland and Germany led by Dr Brian Gibson of VTT Technical Research Centre. As the reliable Sci-News reported:

“Some breweries have taken to resurrecting the flavors of ages past.
Adventurous beer makers are extrapolating recipes from clues
that scientists have uncovered from ancient brews
found at archaeological sites.

Now European chemists have analyzed some of the oldest preserved beers from
an 1840s’ shipwreck to try to provide insight into how they were made.”

source: Sci-News

Once we move away from the hesitancy of archaeology and into the more authoritarian demands of science, we find a refreshing intellectual desire to be actually useful. As almost every Friday night ale devotee will be more than willing to discuss with you in minute detail, 99% of science is utterly useless and just a government backed care in the community scheme for people who think too much.

“If you ask me, when Professor Jouko Rikkinen and colleagues at the University of Helsinki said that
“Myxomycetes or ‘slime molds’ are a monophyletic lineage of eukaryotes that produce intriguing,
morphologically complex fruiting bodies,” I just thought,
how does that help me pay the electricity bill?
Ready for another John?”

However, when that 1% of scientific usefulness is separated from the chaff, we start to see some definite improvements in our understanding of the history of beer drinking. Our Friday night drinker will know, again, in detail, the full benefits of this socially useful science. 

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Friday night at The Trowel and Ritual Object

“So John, tell me then, what’s the oldest brewery in the world?”

He strokes his beard, looks into his glass, a jug obviously, swills around the last of his ‘Old Hookey’, swallows it down and says,

“I’ll let you think about that one whilst I go to the bar. Same again everyone?”

And just as he is about to barge his way through the crowd he looks back over his shoulder and shouts,

“No googling, that’s cheating! Anyway, Google doesn’t know! I checked.”

His group of comrades, all three of them, nod at each other and start to offer suggestions.

“Has to be in England surely?” the first tentative suggestion is uncertain.

“What about Shepard Neame?” the first name gets dropped.

“I don’t think that’s what Bill means.” says John.

“How’s that?” asked Jack.

John looked at Jack and admired how he was always smartly turned out in his blazer and cricket club tie.

“I see what you mean.” said Duncan, “do you think ‘Stonkers’ is being obtuse John?”

John smiled at the retired optician, “Stonkers is not so much obtuse, more opaque, but you can always see past that Dunk.”

They all laughed, chatted for a while about this and that whilst they waited for their drinking buddy to reappear.

“Alrighty!” declared Bill Stonkenson as he arrived back clutching four pints, two with each hand. “You have to have jugs, beer in anything else just isn’t practical, handles lads, handles, how can you get a round without handles?”

Always the refrain at about 10.30 on a Friday night.

“Did you get it, no, of course not.” declared Stonkers triumphantly, “The Raqefet Cave Brewery in Israel is the oldest known brewery in the world!”

“How old is that then?” asked Jack.

“Interesting question that John.” Stonkers said wagging a pointing finger at Jack but looking at John. That was the hierachy, Stonkers, then John with the other two making an audience of the interplay between them. ‘Any guesses?”

They all pulled faces of calculation.

“2000 to 3000 BC” offered Jack with a great deal of hesitation.

“Biblical times. Let there be light ale!” quipped Duncan.

“Very drool Duncan, very drool.” put down Stonkers. “if we can be serious for a moment.”

“I was being serious.” Jack said earnestly. “Two to three thousand years ago, that has to be a reasonable estimate. After all it was the Egyptians that invented beer wasn’t it?”

“John?” Stonkers asked, “Any guesses.”

John squeezed his lips together and pouted, took a good mouthful of his beer, licked his lips and said, “Knowing you Stonkers, this is probably a surprising date so I am going to say…”

John sucked in some air and prepared to take a random stab at the date for the oldest known brewery.

“How about 5000 years ago… wait, wait…” John hesitated and reconsidered, “ 5000 years ago is actually 3000 BC…what I mean is 5000 BC so that is 7000 years ago. There you are, 7000 years old, that has to be the extent of the oldest known brewery… surely?”

Stonkers puffed up like a balloon. “Quite right John, Jack forgot the BC element. How about 13,000 years ago?”

“Not possible.” said Duncan and then looked around the group for support.

“13,000 years ago there was a brewery that has been scientifically identified at the Raqefet Cave in Israel and is the oldest known brewery in the world.” Stonkers announced as though he was letting them in on the fact that he had just won the lottery. “That would be 11,000 BC folks.”

“Oh come on Stonkers,” said John, “11,000 BC, we didn’t even have real farming then and certainly no cities, it can’t be that old!”

“Li Liu et al. 2018, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 21: 783-793 entitled “Fermented beverage and food storage in 13,000 y-old stone mortars at Raqefet Cave, Israel. I rest my case, the oldest brewery in the world is 13,000 years old and the oldest known beers are also 13,000 years old and what’s more the authors of the report reconstructed the beers.”

John was having trouble trying to decide whether being a friend of Stonkers was really the best choice in life. How exactly, he mused, can you be a friend of someone who not only reads obscure archaeological papers but then takes the time to memorise the title just so he can impress his friends on a Friday night. He wished that they didn’t have to go through the performance which Stonkers always put on and that he just said something like…

”Do you know what I read about today? A 13,000 year old brewery.”

However Jack had picked up on what seemed like a more tantilising point.

“What do you mean they reconstructed the beers?”

“At least someone is starting to think about this properly.” judged Stonkers. “Li Liu and his colleagues reconstructed theoretically, they surmised that,

First, starch of wheat or barley would be turned into malt. This happens by germinating the grains in water to then be drained, dried and stored. Then, the malt would be mashed and heated. Finally, it would be left to ferment with airborne wild yeast.” quoted Stonkers. he went on to add,

” And Jiajing Wang, a doctoral student at Stanford University, said ‘Ancient beer is far from what we drink today. It was most likely a multi-ingredient concoction like porridge or thin gruel…’. Now I don’t buy the gruel thing any more than I believe the Chinese know how to brew a proper beer but there you have it.”

John marveled at Stonkers’ amazing memory but wondered the divine purpose in giving such a tool to someone so pedantic and clearly in desperate need of praise! Once Bill Stonkenson had consumed a couple of beers and set up court, he could be a devil for the staff to get out of a pub after time was called.

“If you want truly outstanding beer reconstructing then look no further than Tzemach Aouizerat et al’s paper called Isolation and Characterization of Live Yeast Cells from Ancient Vessels as a Tool in Bio-Archaeology.”

“Oh my god, here he goes.” muttered John underneath his breath.

“How’s that? Ancient vessels? Do you mean ships?” asked Jack.

“No Jack,” responded Duncan, “You’re looking in the wrong direction; Yeast! Beer! It has to mean drinking vessels. Right Stonkers.”

“Absolutely John, Duncan has realised Jack’s mistake as obvious as it was.”

“Not ships then?” asked Jack sounding a little deflated. No-one took any notice, they couldn’t, Stonkers was in full flow.

“The average academic paper is usually one, maybe two authors.” Stonkers said boldly as he planted his feet about a 30 inches apart, put his left hand on his hip, stuck out his magnificent stomach and sucked up the last of his Old Hooky. This was his infamous Henry VIII pose after Holbein. Once he had so enthroned himself the others knew there was a lecture coming their way.

“Your round eh Jack.” Stonkers said holding out his pint pot. “Old Hooky for me.” Jack stammered a bit, stepped forward, took Stonker’s beer mug, said, “Drink up!” to the others, waited, then gathered in their pots and headed to the bar.

“What’s interesting about this paper on Yeast Cells from Ancient Vessels,” Stonkers continued before Jacks’ back had disappeared into the crowd, “ is that there are a staggering 18 authors together with an editor making 19 academics involved in all.”

“That’s impressive.” observed John.

“More than impressive John,” Stonkers said with manufactured gravity, “ this is unprecedented. Maybe on a science paper you will get half a dozen authors and by science I mean particle physics or immunology but even then that is not particularly normal but 18 authors and an editor, well, questions have to be asked.”

“What sort of questions Stonkers?” asked Duncan for no other reason than he felt he should say something.

John looked as though he was trying to weigh up where Stonkers was going to with all of this. He had known Bill Stonkenson for years now and whilst he could get a little on the boring side he always managed to be interesting enough to be entertaining. Throw in his sense of humour and goodwill and he was as good a Friday night drinking buddy as a man really needed.

“Well in all my years at the University…”

John had wondered how long it would be before that line came out.

“… I have never known academics club together unless they could see something in it for themselves at the end of the day.”

Stonkers glanced over his shoulder towards the bar.

“Where’s Jack got to with those beers.” he laughed, “probably brewing them himself!”

The other two chuckled at this also familiar line.

“No, academics are only ever into anything for themselves, even if they are in partnership each partner is sure they are getting more out of it than their colleague.”

John wondered at Bill Stonkenson’s amazing insight into the world of the academic. He knew his mate had been working at the University for over 30 years. He also knew that he was at the top of his pay grade and much respected by his peers. However, how the manager of the student technical services department had managed to gain such a knowledge of academic papers across a breathless range of subjects was quite a mystery to him.

John noticed Jack bowling along towards them with four foaming pint pots in his hands. Duncan had seen him too.

“You see…” Stonkers said…

“Hold on mate,” said John, “here’s jack with the beer.”

Stonkers turned, “Over here Jack, me throat’s dreadfully dry!”

The four friends grasped their pints, clinked them together and took a good slug of ale. Before the others had finished swallowing Stonkers had started talking again.

“So when you see 18 authors you know straight away that something is up.”

Stonkers shuffled on his feet, replanted them and continued.

“A good look at the paper tells you that the answer to the question is right up front.”

He took another sup of ale, licked his lips and screwed up his face as though having to concentrate hard.

“Let me see if I can get this exactly right…” he mused.

John smiled to himself, this was standard performance. Stonkers may be many things but anyone and everyone who knew him understood that the man had a phenomenal memory, photographic almost certainly. As an administrator he must be absolutely mustard hot, he would be able to recall every bit of paper, every paperclip, who had said what, when and why.

“Yes, I think this is it, the recent report about the paper starts like this I think: A multidisciplinary team of scientists has successfully isolated several yeast strains from ancient vessels excavated at archaeological sites in Israel. The researchers also brewed ‘aromatic and flavorful’ beer using the ancient yeast strains.”

John laughed.

“I don’t see it.” said Duncan. He looked at the other three, “I don’t, I don’t see it.”

“How’s that for a bit of serious academic research.” said jack.

“Jack has it.” said Stonkers, “Jack’s got it John, he has, he’s got it.”

John laughed again.

“I don’t see it.” Duncan protested lamely.

“Look Duncan, if I told you that I was involved in scrapping out the gubbings from 5000 year old clay pots and performing extensive chemical analysis on the slime would you be interested in getting involved?”

Duncan pulled a grim looking face. “Hardly.” he said with some distaste.

“However, if I told you that I had found a load of old clay pots in a 5000 year old archaeological site which I suspected had been involved in beer brewing, would you start to become more interested?”

“Well,” said Duncan, “If you put it that way…”

Jack laughed.

John said, “I can see where this is going.”

“Ok, so your interest is tweaked and now I tell you that my plan is to recover these old pots, isolate any yeast strains I might be able to detect on the clay matrix, identify any other components through chemical microscopy and then work to re-activate the yeast and brew the 5000 year old beers purely, you understand, for scientific reasons.”

“I’m in.” said Duncan

“And so said 18 academics and an editor I do believe!” said Stonkers.

“Were they successful?” asked John.

“Always the killer question John, always on the spot mate.” Stonkers lauded his mate. “Were they successful? Hell yes.”

Stonkers took another big lug of his ale.

“These bastards not only produced the beers but then brought in international beer judges to evaluate them. Of course part of the paper also included the authors having tasting sessions, for the purpose of science of course. Proper job and no mistake!”

They all laughed together until stopped by a reasonable panic as last orders was sounded.


Extract from paper on “Isolation and Characterization of Live Yeast Cells from Ancient Vessels as a Tool in Bio-Archaeology” by Tzemach Aouizerat et al

Beer tasting.The flavor and aroma assessments were performed according to the BJCP’s judge procedure manual ( as follows. A 100-ml sample was served to the assessors in identical vessels to prevent variations of aroma and flavor compound distribution. The assessors then recorded their impressions discreetly on a recognized form to avoid bias between the tasters. The forms, interdivided according to the subject’s appearance, aroma, flavor, and overall impression, were then collected, summarized, and processed. The summary ignored the appearance and overall impression sections, as well as hop flavor and aroma entries, and focused primarily on known fermentation by-products and sugar residue compounds. All “named entries” on the forms (such as caramel/fruity/etc.) come with a notation of the strength of the flavor/aroma derives from on a scale of 1 to 5 (left column on the evaluation form) and averaged by 5 testers.


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Beer, history and archaeology; just how much time do we have?

Human beings have been anatomically human for 200,000 years or thereabouts. That’s ten million, one hundred and four thousand Friday nights. Up until recently western academics have dominated the story of the history of humankind and insisted that civilisation only starts within the Indo-European cultural complex sometime in the last five thousand years. This civilsation is clearly at its most robust after the Greek ‘invention’ of philosophy and its great advances are under the guiding hand of white Europeans.

There is nothing that wrong with liking the sound of our own voice, as Stonkers will attest, however history is not about one voice but many. Beer, history and archaeology are always going to be areas of contention and debate, just like the emergence of civilisation. Yet, if beer drinking is to be dated as only 5000 years old then that leaves nine million, eight hundred and forty four thousand Friday nights of human history without anything to drink!

Now really, how credible is that?

There are some who go much further than this. As the report about the brewery at the Raqefet cave in Israel states:

“Archaeological evidence for alcohol production and use is usually associated with fermenting domesticated species in agricultural societies,such as ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and South America. It has long been speculated that humans’ thirst for beer may have been the stimulus behind cereal domestication, and some scientists have attributed this invention to the Natufians, a Neolithic culture that inhabited the Levant region of the eastern Mediterranean from about 13,000 to 9,700 BC.”

source: Sci-News

In other words, there is a body of evidence to support the idea that it was the need to brew beer which was the primary incentive towards domestication of cereals and animals and thus the foundation of human civilisation. I am sure that Stonkers would have an opinion on this matter.

There is a point which could easily be missed here. If Stonker’s antecedents way beyond the paleolithic had a ‘thirst for beer’ that implies that they were already making it using wild cereals and fermenting under the influence of airborne yeasts. Perhaps we can now correct two very bad misconceptions in the history and archaeology of beer and its relationship to civilisation.

Firstly, that in the last 200,000 years not one of the ten million, one hundred and four thousand Friday nights has past without a beer being drunk.

Secondly, to understand the reason it has taken nine million, eight hundred and forty four thousand Friday nights for humanity to come up with the idea of civilisation, see ‘firstly’!

You will note that I am not using ‘probably’, ‘can be seen as’, could be interpreted as such’, ‘is possible to construe as’ or ‘might possibly be’. 

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Beer, history and archeology, other stories and further reading sources

In the story of beer, history and archaeology, I am sure we can all agree, beer is most definitely and absolutely certainly the most important word! What we are left with if we believe our western white civilisation biased academics, is the idea that somehow, as we discovered that civilisation, we discovered beer drinking. Stonkers says ‘NO’. This prejudice within academic thinking is both profound and deeply institutionalised. Whilst we may be talking about beer, history and archaeology, a subject many gowned scribes in the hallowed halls do not take to be a serious history subject, serious historians do understand that the social history of beer and its production is an essential component of the human story.

That story is made less attractive to establishment historians because it often is to be found inter-twined with the lives of the common people of a civilisation or time period. In their, let us be generous, lack of interest in the lives of the common people, the recorders of established history also tend to ‘write off’ what they call ‘pre-history’ as times of animal barbarity; they cannot see our common humanity beyond the walls of civilised power.

We see this racist elitist view expressed most commonly in our dealings with indigenous peoples around the world. The empires of Britain, Spain, Portugal and the rest of Europe saw only brute savages when encountering the Kamiliroi, Lacota, Mayans or any other culture they named aboriginal. These common peoples of their lands were human only in name for those who would write a history which only ever started once a European foot touched the soil and ‘discovered’ the place.

Once we start to look back into the past, these dry and emaciated threshold guardians of history sternly apply such inflexible boundaries to our human story. The story of Gobekli Tepe is as stark an example of this historical homeland security regime as anything else.

“Gobekli changes everything,” says Ian Hodder, an anthropologist at Stanford University.

source: Mark Oliver

As 12,000 year old archaeological sites go, Gobekli Tepe in Turkey is quite something else. Put very simply, it is a site with construction techniques and structures which are as unexpected as a MacDonalds on the moon. That’s not to say we would be astounded with a Big Mac outlet on the moon, after all only the Americans have set foot on it and once their camouflaged Space Soldiers arrive there, they will need something to eat whilst they watch ‘the game’. Just because techniques are unexpected does not mean that we should immediately be looking towards any suggestion of abnormality of source. Human beings, common people, built Gobekli Tepe and the evidence is absolutely conclusive:

“There’s a good chance they got drunk during these meetings [at Gobekli Tepe], too. Massive, stone jars were left behind at the temple site, big enough to hold more than 40 gallons of liquid. There’s no way to know for sure but the archaeologists suspect that liquid was an early type of beer.”

source: Mark Oliver


The word ‘temple’ carries a breadth of meaning which, in this instance, should not be overlooked. Many a Friday night ale drinker would refer to his local hostelry as a ‘temple’ and there is no reason to suppose this usage is not ancient.


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Beer, history and archaeology 7

Once we place an image of Gobekli Tepi against the best we can offer, Stonehenge, we immediately notice that our own offering, constructed some 6,000 years after Gobekli Tepe, is somewhat more primitive in approach. Whilst our Wiltshire heritage clearly lacks a bar, brewery or evidence of brewing vessels, these facts alone are not that critical in demoting its status against that of the Turkish offering. As Mark Oliver tells us about Gobekli:

“This is more than just an old temple. It’s a discovery that forces us to seriously rethink some of the biggest ideas about how human civilization began. Before, it was always assumed that civilization began with agriculture. People settled into farming communities first, we believed, and then worked together to build the massive temples and buildings that would make up humanity’s first cities.

Gobekli Tepe, though, was built 500 years before its people built their first farms. That might mean that our whole concept of how human civilization began needs to be rethought. Here, at least, people seem to have congregated and worked together to build a temple before even making their first farms.”

The idea that this Turkish sited archaeology was such an important antiquity in the history of civilisation has been stoutly rebuffed by many of the gowned scribes as it failed to fit in with the schema of Western European civilisation as the primary civilising force in world history. The tide is turning against this initial knee jerk prejudice but there still remains a fat rump of dissent sitting in the chairs of many a dusty college library. What we can see behind the curtain is that not only did complex structured architecture exist before farming but also some sort of brewing appears also to have been going on. If you have vessels capable of holding 40 gallons of liquid then really, come on let’s be sensible, we are talking brewery aren’t we?

If that is the case, then we either have to say that the discovery of beer and brewing is now set at 12,000 years ago, before farms and cities and when people were still hunter gatherers, or we have to start to question whether the drinking of beer is a much, much older tradition stretching right back possibly as far as 50 or 60 thousand years when the anatomically modern human started stepping out around Israel and the fringes of Europe. All you need is wild cereals and airborne yeast fermentation and the time to sit around waiting for the moment to ‘tap’ the gourd.

This scenario then leads to one final tantalising possibility. If it is the case that because the archaeological evidence for beer consumption prior to 12,000 years ago is lost as it was conducted in wooden vessels, skins and larger pots prone to destruction, do we then have to say that our taste for beer just suddenly appeared? However, if as our own beer drinking instinct tells us, human beings have long, long been making beer however rudimentary, then is it possible that one of the other species of homo, say Homo neanderthalensis, also loved a brew on a Friday night? The growing evidence is that our cousins, the Neanderthals, were not the lumbering, brutes and savages that many of our academics have long labelled them as based on no more science or evidence than a dislike of foreigners, especially when they are not even our own species.

Recent research has uncovered the fact that Neanderthals living 90,000 years ago around the coast of what we now call Italy were diving for shellfish. Any anthropologist from the east end of London will immediately see the link here. Many a respected Australian paleo-sociologist will also be applying for a research grant on the back of this news. Whilst many might dismiss such a suggestion as wildly speculative, the more balanced critic will be able to see the absolute common sense in the fact that beer, history and archaeology provide a fascinating insight into the full history of humanity.

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