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Past Orders: The Archaeology of Beer

Past Orders: The Archaeology of Beer

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Published by Brendon Wilkins
The Bronze Age burnt mounds of Ireland are enigmatic, and many theories have been proposed for their purpose, from cooking sites to Prehistoric saunas. But were these monuments actually microbreweries for Bronze Age beer? brendon Wilkins samples the evidence.
The Bronze Age burnt mounds of Ireland are enigmatic, and many theories have been proposed for their purpose, from cooking sites to Prehistoric saunas. But were these monuments actually microbreweries for Bronze Age beer? brendon Wilkins samples the evidence.

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Brendon Wilkins on Oct 20, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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current archaeology
Bronze Age burnt mounds
Aerial view of theburnt mound at Ballyduff East, Co. Waterford,showing the woodentrough in which a saddlequern was found.
nyone who has spent time on anexcavation knows that archae-ology and beer go hand in hand.It is not just a cordial way forcolleagues to wind down aftera hard day’s work; archaeolog-ical problems can also be calibrated accordingto how many pints must be drunk in order tosolve them. A ‘one-pinter’ is easily figured outbetween rounds; a ‘five-pinter’ has few headsnodding in agreement – even after last orders.After the fifth pint, all logic breaks down.It was whilst debating a ‘five-pinter’ – in thiscase, the function and purpose of Bronze Ageburnt mounds – that Irish archaeologists BillyQuinn and Declan Moore hit upon a solution forthe most ubiquitous and mysterious Prehistoricmonuments in Ireland. Perhaps, thoughtQuinn and Moore, burnt mounds were actu-ally microbreweries – an ancient reflection of awidely enjoyed modern pastime. The followingmorning, ‘The Great Beer Experiment’ was born.
Fulachta fiadh 
Burnt mounds, or
fulachta fiadh
, are one of the most numerous type of sites excavated inIreland, with an estimated 5,000 currentlyknown to archaeologists. They are also one of the least understood. In Ireland, burnt moundsare usually found on low-lying ground close towater, though they also occur in fewer numbers
Past Orders
The Bronze Age burnt mounds of Ireland are enigmatic, and many theorieshave been proposed for their purpose, from cooking sites to Prehistoric saunas.But were these monuments actually microbreweries for Bronze Age beer?
brendn Wilkin
samples the evidence.
the archaeology of beer
   I   M   A   G   E   :
   H   e   a    d    l   a   n    d   A   r   c    h   a   e   o    l   o   g   y    (   I   r   e    l   a   n    d    )   L   t    d   a   n    d   J   o   n   a   t    h   a   n   M   i    l    l   a   r
theories in the real world, learning how peoplelived, hunted, fought, or built. Whilst thesetechniques do not ‘prove’ that interpretationsare correct, they provide a powerful tool in pre-dicting the type of evidence we should expect tosee if the anticipated activities were taking place.Using these principles, O’Kelly reconstructedthe wooden trough and a hearth, and deter-mined that by heating stones in the fire andremoving them with a long-handled shoveland then placing them in the trough, he couldbring the water to boil within about 30 minutes.Using this (and occasionally adding more stonesto keep the water boiling) he cooked a 4.5kg legof mutton in three hours and 40 minutes. Oncethe meat had been consumed and the fires dieddown, the trough was cleaned out ready forreuse. It was about two-thirds full of cracked andbroken stones, amounting to 0.5m
in volume.Chucking this material to the side of thetrough, a horseshoe-shape mound began toform. Using these data to interpret the excavatedevidence, O’Kelly estimated that as long as the
in the uplands of Britain. Radiocarbon dating forthese monuments varies significantly betweenthe Late Neolithic and the Iron Age, with themajority clustering in the Bronze Age, between1900-1500 BC and 1200-800 BC.Burnt mounds are characterised by the pres-ence of a trough, into which hot stones wereplaced to heat water. Afterwards, the heat-shattered stone fragments were fished out of the trough and discarded, so that repeated usecaused the gradual build up of a horseshoe-shaped mound. The trough could be rock-cut,wood-lined, or clay-lined, and was designed tohold enough water to boil or produce steam.Whilst archaeologists have a good grasp of how this hot-stone technology worked, itspurpose is less clear. Various interpretationshave been proposed for the function of burntmounds, including cooking, textile dying, cre-ating steam for sweat-lodges, and leather prepa-ration. The prevailing archaeological consensusis that burnt mounds were primarily cookingplaces, but this hypothesis is not without itsshortcomings.In 1952, the eminent Irish archaeologist M JO’Kelly undertook the first scientifically con-trolled excavation of two burnt mounds atBallyvourney, Co. Cork. Burnt mounds had longbeen known to antiquarians; references in earlyIrish literature to the ‘open air cooking places’of the young warrior-hunters of the
 (small, independent warrior bands), led by thelegendary Fionn MacCumhail, resulted in theburnt mounds being termed
 Fulacht Fiadh
.Professor O’Kelly found a standard patternwhich included a mound of heat-shatteredstones (measuring 12m in width and 60cm inheight) surrounding a rectangular trough (mea-suring 1.8m long and 40cm deep). He foundlittle in the way of artefacts or animal bone,an absence that is a tell-tale signature of burntmounds. In order to investigate further, O’Kellydecided to employ the nascent science of experi-mental archaeology to determine whether thesesites could serve as Prehistoric cooking places.
Burnt mounds as cooking places?
In his seminal book
 Archaeology by Experiment 
, John Coles set an agenda for a new approachto understanding the scant remains from thedistant past. By reconstructing ancient equip-ment and technology using techniques avail-able in the past, archaeologists ‘try out’ their
Archaeologistsexcavating a burnt moundtrough uncovered atNewrath, Co. Kilkenny, onthe route of the N25, anddirected by the author.
Archaeologists can only hope thatwhen the Prehistoric party was over,someone had broken a few pots.
   p   h   o   t   o   s   :
   J   a   m   e   s   E   o   g   a   n
stones were not used more than once, the size of the mound at Ballyvourney would account foraround 54 cooking episodes.The experiment worked; and so, the inter-pretation of burnt mounds as cooking placespassed into archaeology as received wisdom.The problem with this hypothesis, however,lies with the type of evidence we should expectto find if it were true. Burnt bone is rarely foundat burnt mounds, which is surprising for a sitewhose primary purpose was seemingly to cookmeat. This has been explained away by invokingthe presence of acidic soils unfavourable to pre-serving skeletal material. Yet the mounds areone of the most excavated site types in Ireland(the author has personally directed excavationson eight burnt mounds, and assisted on at leasttwice that number), and a corrosive acidic envi-ronment cannot be claimed in every instance.The function of these sites was clearly still up forgrabs. It was in response to this that Billy Quinnand Declan Moore proposed to undertake anexperiment of their own.
The Great Beer Experiment
Quinn and Moore decided to investigate thepossibility that the burnt mounds were brewingsites. Working with the same equipment onemight expect Bronze Age brewers to use, Quinnand Moore also benefited from a 21st centuryunderstanding of science. They knew that waterhad to be heated to approximately 67°C in orderfor the starch in the malted grain to be turnedinto soluble sugars. They knew also that modernbrewers achieved this by adding milled grain tothe water to make a glucose-rich, syrupy sub-stance know as a wort, and that this mixture hadto be transferred to storage vessels mixed withyeast and flavourings, then left to stand for afew days, fizzing and frothing whist the activeyeast devours the sugars and excretes alcohol.Most importantly, they knew that once thisprocess had finished, and the fizzing had finallystopped, they would have an unhopped ale.The basic ingredients of beer are milled, maltedgrain (barley or wheat), water, yeast, and a herbflavouring (usually bitter-tasting dried leavesto counter the sweetness of the brew). Withall these readily to hand, the archaeologists setabout preparing a trough (known to modernbrewers as a ‘mash tun’) of similar dimensionsto those found at burnt mounds, lighting a fireto heat the stones, and some earthen-ware fer-mentation vessels. They began by superheatingstones on a wood fire for about two hours, beforetransferring them to the water trough.They noticed that between 60°C and 70°C thewater gently steamed, while the surface becameglassy and mirror-still. An interesting note tothis part of the process – thinking with a BronzeAge mind-set – was that in future experiments,done without the aid of a modern thermometer,Quinn and Moore knew that the critical temper-ature had been reached when their reflection onthe surface of the water was clearest. They thenadded their wicker basket of malted barley, stir-ring vigorously, and over a period of about
current archaeology
Bronze Age burnt mounds
   I   M   A   G   E   s   :
   M   o   o   r   e   G   r   o   u   p   L   t    d .
Beer is more nutritious than bread,containing more vitamins and essentialamino acids; some have even questionedwhether beer, rather than bread, wasthe driving force of civilisation.

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