Ancient Brews

I had no idea that a curious branch of archaeology is focused on reconstructing the hooch guzzled by the ancients . . . but it seems like a very worthwhile scientific endeavor.

Using high-tech chemical analysis of residues found at ancient archaeological sites — and some scientific guesswork — the researchers have developed the actual recipes that ancient civilization used in their brew.  In the town of Jiahu in China at approximately 7000 B.C., for example, the locals quaffed a beer-wine-sake concoction made of grapes, grain, hawthorne fruit, and more.  The Norsemen circa 3300, on the other hand, were tipping back a brew made of bog myrtle, honey, lingonberries, and bog cranberries.  (Hey, nothing like bog myrtle and bog cranberries to really add that extra kick!)

Of course, alcohol was an essential element in the development of human civilization.  Some archaeologists believe that the reason early humans stopped their hunter-gatherer lifestyle and decided to settle down is that they wanted to raise grain crops that they knew could be fermented in all kinds of interesting ways.  Studying the development and consumption of alcoholic beverages therefore seems like a good way to learn something meaningful about human civilization.

Interestingly, Dogfish Head Brewery will actually be producing some of these ancient recipes for our modern consumption.  That development will allow us to determine for ourselves the most important element of these antique cocktails:  how do they really taste?   And, upon careful reflection, would the ancients probably have rather cracked open a Budweiser?

 

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In A Saxon Grave

The BBC has a story about the discovery of a Saxon grave dating from the mid-seventh century A.D.  The burial site was discovered near Cambridge.

The interesting aspect of the find is that the individual who was buried, thought to be a 16-year-old girl, was found with an exquisite gold and garnet cross on her chest.  Scientists believe that the burial site dates from the point at which Christianity was introduced to the otherwise pagan British Isles, and therefore the cross indicates the girl may have been one of the early converts.  Even more interesting, the girl was buried with a bag of precious stones and a small knife — which indicates that some of the pagan beliefs that the body would need material goods at some point still held sway.  The cross, precious stones, and knife also suggest that the girl was from a noble family, and perhaps even royalty.

Although I think the find is interesting, because you learn a lot about a people from what they choose to be buried with, it always makes me uneasy when scientists invade gravesites.  I don’t care how ancient they may be, human remains deserve to lie undisturbed.

Outdoing Indiana Jones

Modern technology is allowing for amazing advances in, of all things, the discovery of sites and artifacts of ancient civilizations.  The most recent example is found in Egypt, where the new field of “space archaeology” — which seems oxymoronic — has produced the discovery of 17 lost pyramids and thousands of previously undiscovered tombs and settlements.

The space archaeologists use space telescopes, powerful cameras, and infra-red imaging to identify materials buried beneath the surface.  Ancient Egyptians built using mud brick, which has a different density than the surrounding soil and allows the outlines of buried structures to be detected.  One use of the technology was applied to make discoveries at the ancient Egyptian city of Tanis, which will forever be recalled by fans of Indiana Jones and Raiders Of The Lost Ark as the home of the Well of Souls and the Ark of the Covenant.

You don’t need a bullwhip, a well-worn hat, and the ability to take a punch to be an archaeologist — a satellite, a camera, and a creative approach to using new technology will do just fine.  And what is really exciting about this development is the potential uses of this technology in Babylon, and Persia, and other sites in the Fertile Crescent and elsewhere.  Who knows what other evidence of ancient civilizations will be found buried beneath the sands?

As Timeless As Wine (Or Human Behavior)

Archaeologists have uncovered the world’s oldest known wine press in southern Armenia.  The wine press was found in a cave and is being dated to 4,000 B.C. — 6,000 years ago.  In short, the wine press is so old that it predates even the rise of the ancient Egyptian civilization.

The archaeologists believe that the wine press produced a dry red vintage using some kind of foot-stomping method.  They also speculate that the wine was a special vintage used in a burial ritual by a complex ancient society.

I think the key facts in the article suggest a different back story.  Those key facts are (1) a cave, (2) wine, and (3) the world’s oldest discarded leather shoe, which also was found in the same cave.  Do those facts sound to you like the ingredients of a burial ritual?  Or, do those signs point to a secret drinking place where the lazy ne’er-do-wells of the tribe could escape to kick off their shoes, stomp a few grapes, guzzle homemade hooch, and enjoy some drunken hilarity with their buddies away from the tribal chief, the high priest, and angry spouses?  To confirm this theory, the archaeologists need only start looking for dice, chicken bones, and signs of ancient graffiti in the vicinity.

The wine press may be 6,000 years old, but human beings really haven’t changed that much over the millennia.

Out Of Africa, Much Earlier Than Expected

This article reports on recent archaeological findings that raise interesting questions about accepted theories of human evolution and, in particular, about when human ancestors first moved out of Africa. Paleontologists have discovery ancient human remains — dating back some 1.8 million years — in modern Georgia, near the Caucuses. The remains are significantly smaller in physical size, and brain size, than previously identified Homo Erectus remains, and are by far the oldest proto-human remains found out of Africa.

Previously, the prevailing view was that human ancestors first journeyed out of Africa 1 million years ago and began to colonize the world. This discovery suggests that the human diaspora began much earlier — and may even indicate that there are significant issues about where certain human species actually originated.  The story of human evolution is a fascinating one, and much remains to be discovered and written.