Beer brewing in Bronze Age Greece

In this article we present a summary on the exciting discovery of beer brewing in Bronze Age Greece.

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New data presented for the first time in Mrs. Valamoti’s paper titled “Brewing beer in wine country? First archaeobotanical indications for beer making in Early and Middle Bronze Age Greece” was published in the journal Vegetation History and Archaeobotany on December 30, 2017, and is strong evidence of beer being produced and consumed in prehistoric Greece. Following is the paper’s summary:

“The production and consumption of alcoholic beverages by prehistoric societies have been important issues of archaeological and anthropological research and have often been linked to significant social and economic developments. There is abundant data for the Bronze Age on the production and consumption of wine in the Aegean, while the earliest signs of winemaking in Europe can already be found in the Late Neolithic, in the settlement of Dikili Tas, in the prefecture of Kavala, through the study of archaeobotanical data and chemical analyses of ceramic remains.

“The new data, presented here for the first time, is strong proof that besides wine, the inhabitants of prehistoric Greece also produced and consumed beer. These are archaeobotanical remains of sprouted cereal grain and fragments of ground cereals from two Bronze Age settlements: Archontiko in Macedonia and Argissa in Thessaly. The finds are almost from the same period and date back to the end of the 3rd-early 2nd millennium B.C. In the case of Archontiko, along with rich cereal remains, a concentration of sprouted cereal grain was located, concentrations of ground cereal masses and fragments of ground cereals, along with small masses that come from inside two houses. The sprouted cereals appear fragile and are badly preserved, probably due to malting and the conditions of carbonization. The fragments and the masses of cereal also found in other building of the settlement have been interpreted as possible remains of processed foods such as tarhana which are widespread in the Mediterranean and Balkan regions. These new finds make it possible to interpret the processed cereals as remains of malting.

“The findings from Argissa correspond to a rich concentration of sprouted wheat grain, for the most part, and barley grain. Unlike the Archontiko, the grain from Argissa is preserved in a much better condition. The sprouted grain from Archontiko and Argissa could correspond to malt preparation, as suggested by similar finds from Serbia of the Middle Bronze Age. The cereal masses and fragments from the Archontiko most probably represent more advanced stages than the brewing process: they could represent ground malt before or after its mixing with water, while the ground cereals would be added prior to the fermentation process as an additional source of starch, corresponding to the process followed in the Near East and Egypt during antiquity.

The practice of brewing could have reached the Aegean region through contacts with the eastern Mediterranean where it was widespread. The process of adopting brewing and the cultural context of brewing and consumption of beer by the inhabitants of the prehistoric Aegean is a matter that needs further investigation, and archaeobotany can be a valuable tool, combined with the study of possible facilities, constructions and drinking vessels which may be related to these practices.”


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Studies targeting ancient food have begun to acquire a significant position in archaeological inquiry, building up on what Sherratt (1991) had very perceptively argued for, nearly 30 years ago, that people do not eat species, they eat meals. Conferences, papers and books have addressed food preparation and consumption, focusing on luxury foods (Van der Veen, 2003), particular consumption practices like feasting on meat and alcohol (Jones, 2007; Miracle and Milner, 2002; Wright, 2004) or variable social, economic and symbolic dimensions of food across the globe (Gosden and Hather, 1999). Research projects have investigated food globalisation in prehistory (Jones et al., 2011), the role of the environment and culture into shaping Early Neolithic food ingredients of Southeastern Europe (Ivanova et al., 2018; Kreuz and Marinova, 2017) or the consumption of particular foods, e.g. dairy products (Craig et al., 2005; Evershed et al., 2008). At the same time, edited volumes on the subject of food, embraced a wide array of methods, approaches and case studies in various regions and time periods, including methods and analytical tools like chemical residue and isotopic analysis, often innovatively combined with experimentation, ethnoarchaeology and associated processing equipment (e.g. Anderson et al., 2013; Capparelli et al., 2011; Chevalier et al., 2014; Hastorf and DeNiro, 1985; Parker-Pearson, 2003; Mee and Renard, 2007; Tzedakis et al., 2008; Voutsaki and Valamoti, 2013). Yet, the culinary transformation of plants has rarely been the focus of a systematic inquiry and even less so as regards more integrated approaches (cf. Fechner and Mesnil, 2002).

The importance of plant foods has been underlined in recent archaeological discourse with special emphasis placed on cereal staples, luxury foods and diet enhancers such as wine and oil, condiments and spices or hallucinogenic plants like opium poppy (e.g. Fuller and Rowlands, 2011; Hamilakis, 1996; Sherratt, 1995; Van der Veen, 2003). Prehistoric culinary and food consumption practices have been at the heart of discussions on the emergence of Bronze and Iron Age elites in prehistoric Europe (e.g. Arnold, 1999; Renfrew, 1972; Wright, 2004), wine and oil in particular, relating power appropriation and access to certain types of plant foods and associated processing technologies. Species selection and their transformation into meals involves the interaction of natural vegetation and human culture, whereby the former is shaped, named and incorporated in each society’s belief systems, transliterated into daily and life experiences, collective memory and identity. Food preparation and consumption form arenas where social roles are learnt, power relations forged, negotiated and renewed (e.g. Dietler and Hayden, 2001; Jones, 2007). Yet, ancient plant foods, despite their major dietary role, as staples or for special contexts of consumption, remain underexplored as regards individual recipes and processes underlying the preparation of specific prehistoric foods. They are little discussed in terms of their contribution to social cohesion and differentiation through daily, communal or special contexts of consumption, as well as their role in elite emergence and cultural transformation through time. Moreover, culinary practices have been poorly integrated on a regional and temporal scale that would allow for culinary trends and their change through time to be observed in a coherent way. As a result, the dynamic role of culinary transformation of plant ingredients into shaping social and cultural identity in prehistory remains little explored and comprehended.

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Archaeobotanical research in Southeastern Europe over the last 20 years has brought to light a wealth of new evidence on actual plant food remains based on cereals, pulses and fruit. In this paper we focus on prehistoric cereal foods from southeastern Europe, offering an overview of the types of food remains encountered in the archaeological record and a first discussion of the potential recipes that led to their production. Cereals have formed the staples of prehistoric communities of the area since the appearance of the first farming communities in the 7th millennium B.C. The ways into which cereals were transformed into food we believe are closely linked to the interplay of environmental and cultural parameters. They can be consumed whole, smoked, roasted, boiled, ground coarsely or finely, then further processed through the intervention of fire and liquids such as milk or water. There is ample ethnographic evidence from Europe, Western Asia and Northern Africa to suggest that human societies have devised many ways of transforming cereals into food, either for short-term or long-term consumption (Capparelli et al., 2011; d’Andrea and Mitiku-Haile, 2002). Moreover, ancient texts reveal a wealth of cereal food preparations, varying not only in terms of the ingredients but also in terms of the steps involved in the preparation of the recipes (cf. Dalby, 1996; Valamoti, in press). Inevitably, archaeological finds of cereal foods are classified on the basis of our current knowledge of potential ways of food transformation. Pilot studies and preliminary publications on such types of foods have suggested food preparations like bulgur and/or trachanas, corresponding to pre-cooked, ground cereal fragments (Marinovа, 2006; Valamoti, 2002, 2011; Valamoti et al., 2008). Other types of cereal food remains retrieved have been described as bread or porridge (Carretero et al., 2017; Heiss, 2008; Nikov et al., 2018; Popov et al., 2018; Popova, 2016) and exciting new investigations have further explored the contents and structure of these ‘bread/porridge’-like remains, yielding promising results (Heiss et al., 2017; Primavera et al., 2018). At the same time alternative interpretations for cereal-based lumps are emerging, pointing towards the direction of brewing a cereal based alcoholic produce, possibly beer (Valamoti, 2017a, Valamoti, 2017b).

(Source: “Prehistoric cereal foods of southeastern Europe: An archaeobotanical exploration”, by Soultana Maria Valamoti, Elena Marinova, Andreas G.Heiss, Ivanka Hristova, Chryssa Petridou, Tzvetana Popova, Stavroula Michou, Lambrini Papadopoulou, Panagiotis Chrysostomou, Pascal Darcque, Dimitrios Grammenos,  Stanislav Iliev, Stavros Kotsos, Chaido Koukouli-Chrysanthaki, Krassimir Leshtakov, Dimitria Malamidou, Nikos Merousis, Vassil Nikolov, Krassimir Nikov, Κrastina Panayotova, Aikaterini Papanthimou, Hristo Popov, Liana Stefani, Zoï Tsirtsoni, Tatjana Kanceva Ruseva)

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Wine as a diachronic element of religious, ritual, healing and culinary traditions, has
been the alcoholic drink associated with prehistoric societies of the Aegean and
closely linked with ancient Greek civilisation, the cult of Dionysos and the
symposium. Artefactual evidence, archaeobotanical remains and chemical analyses
indicate wine making in the Neolithic, while Linear B texts make clear references to
wine and Dionysos. Different wine types, wine-drinking and wine trade are frequently
mentioned in ancient literary sources. In this regional and cultural context, beer is
hardly ever considered in archaeological discourse and for historic periods it is a drink
of foreigners, despite the availability of cereal grains. Recent and old
archaeobotanical evidence indicates beer making during the end of the 3rd
millennium B.C. and the beginning of the 2nd millennium B.C. in mainland Greece.
The finds consist of sprouted grains of cereals, wheat and barley as well as ground
cereal fragments that could correspond to ground malt. This pre-Celtic ‘beer’ in wine
territory, allows an exploration of alcoholic drinks and identities in Southeastern
Europe, currently investigated within ERC funded project PLANTCULT (Grant
Agreement No 682529, Consolidator Grant 2016-2021), aided by scanning electron
microscopy, experimental replication and residue analyses.

(Source: “Bronze Age beer making in a wine territory? Archaeobotanical evidence from
Greece”, by Soultana Maria Valamoti)

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Abstract This paper revisits and old question “Beer or wine?” as regards the potential alcoholic drinks consumed by prehistoric societies in southeastern Europe. Archaeobotanical remains of sprouted cereal grains as well as cereal fragments from the Bronze Age sites of Archondiko and Argissa on mainland Greece, presented here for the first time, provide strong indications for the making of something similar to beer in late 3rd millennium bc Greece, opening up a series of new questions about the recipes followed in this process and their origins. Beyond the recipes themselves, the paper highlights a range of available options as regards alcoholic drinks in Bronze Age Greece, beer and wine, offering thus a more detailed approach to preferences and possible identities reflected in the choice of alcoholic drink among prehistoric societies inhabiting the southernmost tip of the Balkan Peninsula, the Aegean and mainland Greece.

(Source: “Brewing beer in wine country? First archaeobotanical indications for beer making in Early and Middle Bronze Age Greece”, by Soultana Maria Valamoti)

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Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides


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