The human penchant for the consumption of psychoactive substances is a part of ourselves like our thirst for water. Even modern day society is structured around drinking events, each differing with levels of scale and which beverage is deemed appropriate. Whether it is tea time or a glass of wine, neither is a necessity for overall health and is only seen as a means for hospitality. For better or for worse, the benefits and allure for mind-altering effects play a role in our feasting habits, rituals, code of conduct, work, taxation and our basic dietary requirements. Yet it was not until the early 19th century when the cynicism towards alcohol developed, and so to the association of intoxication with adolescent behavior. The result of which has shifted the attention of consumption from its cultural importance to its ill effects on society. This does not imply humans have not been wary of alcohol’s harmful effects on the body. Indeed, an ancient Egyptian letter revealed a teacher pleading with their pupil to return to their studies and refrain from over-consumption:
I am told that thou forsakest books (and) dost abandon thyself to pleasure. Thou dost wander from tavern to tavern. Every evening the smell of beer, The smell of beer frightens men away (from thee). It corrupts they soul, (and) thou art like a broken oar. Thou canst guide to neither side. Thou art like a temple without a god, (like) a house without bread. Thou art detected as thou climbest up the walls, And breakest the plank. The people flee from thee, And thou dost strike and wound them. O, that thou wouldst comprehend that wine is an abomination And that thou wouldst abjure the pomegranate-drink; That thou wouldst not set they heart on fig-wine, And that thou woulds forget the carob-wine
Despite the clear distaste for consumption this teacher has, a great deal of Egyptian medicine involved alcohol. There was even beer reserved for priests during times of worship. If beer was simply a beverage to satisfy hunger and thirst, would we see such fervent dedication to its crafting? This, then, signifies the cultural role drink plays with Egyptian society.
Thus to gain a better understanding of alcohol and its role in society, it is necessary to study alcohol with a focus on cultural importance, rather than addiction and abuse.
Alcohol’s primary purpose is to be consumed so it must constantly be produced. This introduces a need for production, technological development, a workforce, and a generation of wealth and income. As such, beer brewing plays a critical role in past economies. One example comes from the inhabitants at Hrísbrú, Iceland. Evidence from the pollen record, faunal remains, a large longhouse, and soil fertilization strongly suggests this area was subject to chiefly rule. There was an overabundance of barley grain, most likely for beer production (it would not make sense to produce beer in times of starvation), and plenty of cattle for human consumption, so it can be concluded that large feasts were held here. Over time, barley cultivation was abandoned and replaced by grazing land, correlating with the time chiefs surrendered political power in the 12th century. In any case, prior to the downfall of chieftains in Scandinavian society, they were using the consumption of alcohol to garner political power. The longhouse at Hrísbrú would require plenty of men to work the fields, and what better way to convince others to work than by offering beer. Beer’s production, then, was involved in all levels of this Icelandic economy. Thus, through the consumption of alcohol, hospitality, social networks and political bonds in human society were strengthened.
As described previously, alcohol has its own particular artifacts and rituals associated with it, due to its role in human material culture. Different cultures have their own drinking vessels as exemplified by the drinking horns of Nordic fame, puzzle jugs, Bell Beaker and Grooved Ware pottery, which is often assumed to have contained alcoholic beverages. With these, rituals develop. As described by Willis (2002), in 1873 Joseph Thomson came across a village in Tanzania performing a ritual:
“In the square of the village, propped against a tree, sat a poor woman, apparently half dead with illness of some sort, and looking very much as if she was in the stocks. Roundabout were some huge pots of native beer...In front of the woman the men danced in succession, with movements and gestures the most extraordinary… I learnt that they were employed in casting out devils from the woman in front of them, and to do this they required to use the most powerful charms they could think of, namely beer, dancing, and music.“ Simply put: If there’s no beer, it’s not a ritual [Willis 2002, pg 61]. Thus, alcohol consumption and production, and the associated material culture and rituals are intimately tied to human’s past. Furthermore, alcoholic drinks have substantial nutritional value and have formed a staple component of the diet in past societies. Cereal grains can become a porridge, bread or beer depending on which culinary practice is applied to it. Put in another way: alcohol represents value to a culture, and once it is consumed, that same value is absorbed into the body. It is of little surprise then, that fermented beverages have more cultural rituals associated with them when compared to other foods. Past and present societies use alcohol to define and reinforce cultural relations and identity. In previous anthropological studies, most of these societies promoted the drinking of alcoholic beverages as a means to provide refreshment and nutrition while strengthening family and community identity. Furthermore, each cultural identity developed as a response to the environment constructed by their ancestry (i.e. parents). In Europe, for example, the Roman historian Tacitus recorded the existence of a law amongst the Alemanii Germanic tribe, requiring the donation of beer to be made annually to the temple. How this tradition developed I am not sure, but it highlights beer’s role as a sacrificial item. With the production of fermented beverages humans have created a cultural variation in their diet, causing evolutionary change amongst the associated species and cultural change among different populations. Each successive population is subjected to more efficient brewing techniques, cultural variation in flavor, ritualistic and consumption practices, and more. This environmental inheritance has lead to certain populations to develop higher allele frequencies for more efficient ethanol metabolization. Hopefully, through research focused on the cultural context rather than abuse, a better understanding of humans relationship with alcohol will develop.
Alcohol deserves to be subjected to academic research as it can provide insight into human social behaviours, culture, and a better understanding of alcohol’s dangers and benefits.
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Hayashida, F. M. (2008). Ancient beer and modern brewers: Ethnoarchaeological observations of chicha production in two regions of the North Coast of Peru. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology,27(2), 161-174.
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Zori, D., Byock, J., Erlendsson, E., Martin, S., Wake, T., & Edwards, K. J. (2013). Feasting in Viking Age Iceland: sustaining a chiefly political economy in a marginal environment. Antiquity, 87(335), 150-165.
The article The scholars who look at American History through Beer-Tinted Glasses claimed that an interest in beer history was on the rise. It certainly seems to be happening, what with the amount of talks, conferences, and blogs on the matter. This claim isn't necessarily unique either. Even in his 2006 paper, Alcohol: Anthropological/Archaeological Perspectives, Dr. Michael Dietler states that a scholarly interest in the history of alcohol was on the rise. It is easy for me to assume this is true. I have payed more attention to the topic now than I did five years ago, which gives my assumptions bias.
So to see whether research into alcohol within archaeology is increasing, I’ll be having a look through academic journals to track brewing archaeological articles.
There does seem to be a bit of difference between Antiquity and the Journal of Archaeological Science, which was reviewed last time. Before, there seemed to be an overall increase in the frequency of articles written. For Antiquity, there were a few publications around the 60's, which staggered off until the late 90's. After which, there has been a steady production of one article regarding brewing archaeology - most of it about wine (which I will get back to later).
This paints a different picture than before; this suggests that brewing archaeology is not on the rise. Rather, there is consistent work on the topic in low numbers. Do note, however, this is a limited search. There are plenty of articles on food processing, vessel ceramics, pottery production, and residue analysis. Out of necessity, I only take articles directly relating to alcohol.
The structure of this journal should be taken into account before any conclusions can be made. Since its start in 1927, Antiquity has published four issues every year, with each issue having a range of research articles, method descriptions, debates, and book reviews. Currently, this journal is on Volume 90, issue 354. In 2015, they decided to switch to produce six volumes instead of four.
This structure, then, could be a factor as to why we see this pattern of one article a year. When you have limited production, the editor has to decide on articles with greater impact. With such a limited space, it is easy to imagine that some brewing articles were overlooked.
Other corroborating factors could include:
An increase in archaeological researchers overall
With an increase in scientists, so too would follow a general increase in article publishing. As a result of this, brewing archaeology could be drowned out by more popular (i.e. safe) research themes
Antiquity does not focus on food production
This would explain why we see so few articles released
One researcher's career was focused on food production at one period of time
Which could explain why there is a gap between the 60's and late 90's
Yet, however with all things in science, this requires further research. At least, though, there is a clear trend starting to form that suggests brewing archaeology is indeed on the rise:
Total amount of publications from both journals.
2016 Luley, B.P. and Piquès, G. (2016) ‘Communal eating and drinking in early Roman Mediterranean France: a possible tavern at Lattara, c. 125–75 BC’, Antiquity, 90(349), pp. 126–142. doi: 10.15184/aqy.2015.184.
2015 Bruhn, J. (2015) ‘Dominic Ingemark . Glass, alcohol and power in Roman Iron Age Scotland. 300 pages, 153 b&w illustrations, 17 colour photographs. 2014. Edinburgh: National Museums Scotland; 978-1-905267-81-1 paperback £35.’, Antiquity, 89(343), pp. 242–243. doi: 10.15184/aqy.2014.20.
2014 Pollard, A.M., Bray, P.J. and Gosden, C. (2014) ‘Is there something missing in scientific provenance studies of prehistoric artefacts?’, Antiquity, 88(340), pp. 625–631. doi: 10.1017/S0003598X00101255.
2013 Zori, D., Byock, J., Erlendsson, E., Martin, S., Wake, T. and Edwards, K.J. (2013) ‘Feasting in Viking Age Iceland: sustaining a chiefly political economy in a marginal environment’, Antiquity, 87(335), pp. 150–165. doi: 10.1017/S0003598X00048687.
2012 Areshian, G.E., Gasparyan, B., Avetisyan, P.S., Pinhasi, R., Wilkinson, K., Smith, A., Hovsepyan, R. and Zardaryan, D. (2012) ‘The chalcolithic of the Near East and south-eastern Europe: discoveries and new perspectives from the cave complex Areni-1, Armenia’, Antiquity, 86(331), pp. 115–130. doi: 10.1017/S0003598X00062499.
Dietrich, O., Heun, M., Notroff, J., Schmidt, K. and Zarnkow, M. (2012) ‘The role of cult and feasting in the emergence of Neolithic communities. New evidence from Göbekli Tepe, south-eastern Turkey’, Antiquity, 86(333), pp. 674–695. doi: 10.1017/S0003598X00047840.
2011 Jané, M.R.G. (2011) ‘The meaning of wine in Egyptian tombs: the three amphorae from Tutankhamun’s burial chamber’, Antiquity, 85(329), pp. 851–858. doi: 10.1017/S0003598X00068356.
2008 Iriarte, J., Gillam, J.C. and Marozzi, O. (2008) ‘Monumental burials and memorial feasting: an example from the southern Brazilian highlands’, Antiquity, 82(318), pp. 947–961. doi: 10.1017/S0003598X00097702.
Miller, N.F. (2008) ‘Sweeter than wine? The use of the grape in early western Asia’, Antiquity, 82(318), pp. 937–946. doi: 10.1017/S0003598X00097696.
2007 Valamoti, S.M., Mangafa, M., Koukouli-Chrysanthaki, C. and Malamidou, D. (2007) ‘Grape-pressings from northern Greece: the earliest wine in the Aegean?’, Antiquity, 81(311), pp. 54–61. doi: 10.1017/S0003598X00094837.
2006 Renfrew, J. (2006) ‘Food and feasting in antiquity’, Antiquity, 80(310), pp. 1000–1003. doi: 10.1017/S0003598X0009459X.
2001 Brown, A.G., Meadows, I., Turner, S.D. and Mattingly, D.J. (2001) ‘Roman vineyards in Britain: stratigraphic and palynological data from Wollaston in the Nene Valley, England’, Antiquity, 75(290), pp. 745–757. doi: 10.1017/S0003598X00089250.
1998 Day, P.M. and Wilson, D.E. (1998) ‘Consuming power: Kamares Ware in Protopalatial Knossos’, Antiquity, 72(276), pp. 350–358. doi: 10.1017/S0003598X00086622.
1997 Rausing, G. (1997) ‘The wheeled cauldrons and the wine’, Antiquity, 71(274), pp. 994–999. doi: 10.1017/S0003598X00085884.
Samuel, D. (1997) ‘McGOVERN PATRICK E. , FLEMING STUART J. & KATZ SOLOMON H. . The origins and ancient history of wine. xxiv+409 pages, 132 illustrations, 13 tables. 1995. Langhorne (PA): Gordon & Breach Publishers: 2-88124-577-3 hardback £55 & $85.’, Antiquity, 71(271), pp. 236–237. doi: 10.1017/S0003598X00084799.
1996 Rice, P.M. (1996) ‘Peru’s colonial wine industry and its European background’, Antiquity, 70(270), pp. 785–800. doi: 10.1017/S0003598X00084064.
1995 Dronfield, J. (1995) ‘Subjective vision and the source of Irish megalithic art’, Antiquity, 69(264), pp. 539–549. doi: 10.1017/S0003598X00081928.
1978 Dickson, J.H. (1978) ‘Bronze age mead’, Antiquity, 52(205), pp. 108–113. doi: 10.1017/S0003598X00071921.
1966 Stubbings, F.H. (1966) ‘Zafiropoulo Jean : Mead and Wine: A History of the Bronze Age in Greece (translated from the French by Peter Green). London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1966. 156 pp., 22 pls., 19 figs. 30s.’, Antiquity, 40(159), pp. 240–241. doi: 10.1017/S0003598X00032622.
1959 Piggott, S. (1959) ‘A LATE BRONZE AGE WINE TRADE?’, Antiquity, 33(130), pp. 122–123. doi: 10.1017/S0003598X00118368.
1956 Food Production in N. Africa (1956) Antiquity, 30(120), pp. 223–224. doi: 10.1017/S0003598X00118113.