British Archaeology, no 19, November 1996: Features

Finding magic in Stone Age real ale

The first farmers may have grown barley to brew ale. Merryn Dineley reports

Our traditional view of the Neolithic is that it was the period in which people first learned to grow cereal crops, such as barley, in order to make bread and porridge. In a recent article in British Archaeology, however, the archaeological scientist Mike Richards wrote that, on the evidence of bone analysis, meat was more important than grain in the British Neolithic diet (`First farmers with no taste for grain', March).

He postulated an animal-based Neolithic economy, but pointed nevertheless to the evidence for small-scale grain production. This grain, he suggested, was grown for ritual purposes - but he hazarded no guesses as to what these rituals actually involved. Might the grain have been grown, in fact, for brewing? And might ale have been a significant part of these rituals?

My research suggests that brewing could well have been an important part of British Neolithic domestic and ritual life. We know that the Sumerians were making ale in the 3rd millennium BC and that the Egyptians were fermenting date wine and ale at a similar time. The Sumerians had a goddess of brewing, Ninkasi, and a tablet inscribed with a verse singing her praises has been found at Nippur, dated to c 1800BC. It seems to describe Sumerian brewing methods; and this `recipe' was followed by Solomon Katz and Fritz Maytag of the Anchor Breweries of California in 1991, producing a drinkable and effective brew that was aptly called `Ninkasi'. More recently, Scottish and Newcastle Breweries, in association with researchers from Cambridge University, made Tutankhamun Ale, again a drinkable and sweet brew.

But what of brewing in Britain and Europe? Whereas in Egypt, dry conditions allow organic residues, even yeasts, to survive and be analysed, in Britain acidic soils and wet climate conspire to destroy the fragile evidence of brewing. However, a deposit of organic material identified as the possible remains of a brewed drink was found in a beaker at North Mains, Strathallan, during excavations in 1978/9. The site was a timber circle, bank and ditch (dated to 2330 ± 60BC, in the transitional period between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age) together with several later Bronze Age cist burials. The beaker lay in one of these, accompanying the skeleton of a young woman aged around 25 years. The cist, situated in the centre of the timber circle, had remained partially sealed, hence the unusual survival of the organic material. Pollen analysis revealed a cereal-based drink flavoured with meadowsweet - perhaps something between mead and ale since meadowsweet is known as a flavouring of mead. The radiocarbon date was 1540 ± 65BC.

In addition, plant debris survived inside a beaker in a Bronze Age cist at Ashgrove in Fife, the slabs of which had been carefully sealed with clay. Pollen analysis revealed large amounts of immature lime pollen and meadowsweet, which again was interpreted as the possible remains of mead, but was unfortunately not radiocarbon-dated.

Analysis of organic residues on pottery found near the stone circle at Machrie Moor, Arran, also revealed immature pollen - probably from broken-up flower heads - interpreted as possibly indicating the presence of mead or honey; although it was not possible to recreate recipes from the remains, nor to accurately date them.

Each of these examples of the organic residues of Bronze Age brewing - the only ones I know from Britain - was found in a ritual rather than a domestic context. So what significance could ale have had in Bronze Age or Neolithic ritual? Maybe it was believed to have healing properties, or it was drunk to reach a state of intoxication on special occasions such as funerals or other ceremonial events.

The process of brewing itself could also have given the brew a `magical' significance. The fundamental methods of brewing have remained unchanged for millennia. Raw barley grain contains `locked' sugar in the form of starch. During germination, enzymes are formed which can convert this starch into sugars which can be fermented; but germination has to be stopped at the right point and the grain dried out. In the next process, medieval and modern European brewers mixed the dried grain with warm water, in order to convert the remaining starch to sugars, but Sumerian and Egyptian brewers made barley cakes which were baked, mixed with water, sieved, and the resulting sweet liquor fermented in large jars.

Fermentation was not understood until 1857, when Pasteur discovered it was caused by a living microorganism, yeast. His work was continued by John Tyndall who, in 1876, delivered a lecture in which he referred to the `art and practice of prehistoric brewers' being based on `empirical observation' - they knew what to do, but not why. It is easy to imagine an element of magic, and a potential ritual significance, being given to the `magical transformation' that was the art of brewing.

Merryn Dineley is a post-graduate student of archaeology at Manchester University

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Medieval graves often contained symbolic artefacts, writes Chris Daniell

When penance continued in the grave

Since the establishment of Christianity in Britain, Christian graves have been largely - though not entirely - devoid of grave-goods. Gone are the sumptuous burials of the pagan early medieval era, or of the pre-Roman Iron Age. Yet some enigmatic grave-goods remain throughout the medieval period, strange objects of metal, textile or stone for which only tentative explanations are available.

Given the near-silence of contemporary documentary sources, it is unlikely that we will ever know for sure whether these mid-later medieval objects were meant to aid the deceased in the afterlife, to bolster the status of the family left behind, or to achieve some other aim. My own research into documentary records and archaeological evidence, however, seems to suggest that a number of these objects may have been included as religious symbols often connected to notions of penance.

An example can be found at the Welsh monastery of Llandough, near Penarth in South Glamorgan, where a skeleton was found during excavations in 1994 wearing an iron band around its stomach. The monastery flourished from the Late Roman period to the 11th century, but the skeleton itself was undated. The bands were interpreted as a medical aid for a hernia or bad back (see BA March 1995). This is a possibility, but a medieval German collector of miracles, Caesarius of Heisterbach, recorded two instances of `sinful women' who wore iron bands as a punishment. One woman, Clementina, `committed a sin of the flesh', and when she died `there were found round her body nine iron bands', taken by Caesarius to have been worn as a penance. His religious interpretation offers a second possibility to set beside the medical explanation.

A religious interpretation can also be attributed, perhaps, to the remains of a belt discovered on a 14th century body in the Dominican cemetery in Carlisle. The medieval author Eadmer, in his Life of St Anselm, described how the knight Humphrey was cured of dropsy by Anselm's belt. When Eadmer asked for it back, Humphrey pleaded with him to allow him to keep a length of the belt to keep him well. Belts from holy men, it seems, were sometimes used to cure disease; and what is interesting about the Carlisle skeleton is that the person was clearly ill - he suffered from Paget's disease.

Equally enigmatic are the stones sometimes found cradling a skeleton's head, known to archaeologists as `pillow stones' or `ear-muffs'. The standard archaeological explanation is they kept the face up-right, so that at Judgement Day, when the body literally rose from the grave, the resurrected body would be looking east at the risen Christ. Yet there is one historical source that suggests the stones were connected with penance. The normal medieval symbols of penance were sack-cloth and ashes, on which monks were laid before they died. (Charcoal in 9th-12th century `charcoal burials', where bodies were laid on top of, or surrounded by, a layer of charcoal, may represent the ashes.) In the Chronicon Lemovicense by Geoffrey of Vigeosis, however, stones are mentioned together with sack-cloth and ashes. In this account, when Henry, eldest son of Henry II, lay dying he was put onto the usual sack-cloth and ashes, but also had stones placed under his head and feet, and the noose of a condemned criminal around his neck. Taken together, all the elements add up to a powerful impression of penance. Although only a single example, the inclusion of stones perhaps as a symbol of penance may cast light on the archaeological discovery of pillow stones in the grave.

Medieval priests were often buried with their chalice and paten. These are usually thought to have been buried merely as a symbol of the deceased's priestly office, but it may be that these objects also carried a specific religious symbolism as well. Two inscriptions, one on the paten buried at Canterbury with Archbishop Hubert Walter, d 1205, and the other on a 12th century portable altar from Cologne (in addition to a handful of manuscript references) indicate that the chalice symbolises Christ's tomb, and the paten the stone before the tomb. One manuscript, the Mitrale by Sicardus Bishop of Cremona (d 1215), records further that the `chalice [signifies] the body, because wine is in the chalice, blood is in the body', suggesting that wine may sometimes have been poured into the chalice before burial - an idea that archaeology may one day confirm.

Documentary records reveal alternative explanations of the obscurer rituals of medieval death, and they should certainly not be ignored as archaeologists try to understand the objects they find in graves.

Chris Daniell is an archaeologist with Past Forward in York. His book, `Death and Burial in Medieval England', is published next month by Routledge at UKP35.00.

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In the second of two articles, Mark Roberts describes the origin of the first Europeans, and argues they were more advanced than we thought

And then came clothing and speech

Why was Europe colonised by hominids half a million years ago? And what sort of people were these first colonisers?

There may be evidence, as some claim, for a sporadic occupation of Spain around a million years ago at sites such as Atapuerca and Orce (see BA, September 1995). However, without doubt the main colonising event began in the interglacial, or warm period, of 524-478,000 years ago. During this period incontestable sites are found throughout the western part of the continent. The originators of this colonis-ing thrust are thought to have come from Africa and the Levant, and their principal tool was the stone handaxe. They are referred to generally as archaic modern humans or specifically as Homo cf heidelbergensis, although some researchers still see them as Homo erectus rather than an evolved form of this lineage.

As for why these hominids moved into Europe, hypotheses have been postulated such as a change in the composition of the carnivore populations of Europe, thus reducing competition for food resources; or climatic and hence environmental change in Africa, forcing a general population movement. It is feasible that these populations met up with other colonisers coming from the east via Asia and the Caucasus.

But what forces were driving the colonisers steadily northwards and east? The archaeological record suggests it was unlikely to be because of competition with a remnant population, or population pressure amongst the colonisers. One explanation may be recolonisation of the continent by flora and fauna, as the inter-glacial climate began to take effect - hominids may well have moved in conjunction with expanding ecological zones that satisfied their subsistence requirements. There exists too, the possibility that the migration route may have been around the European coastline, which would have avoided many of the natural obstacles of a direct route, although access to large grazing herds would have been restricted.

A great deal has been made in recent literature of the shock to early hominids that the move out of Africa must have entailed. Indeed, the absence of handaxes among the first occupants of sites such as Orce and Atapuerca has been explained on the grounds that they could not maintain their social networks, group memory and hence the knowledge of how to make this particular tool. The severity of the European climate, compared to Africa, is also said to have probably played a large part in influencing hominid behaviour.

In my view, the European climate is unlikely to have troubled the early colonisers dramatically. If we assume that colonisation began around the beginning of the interglacial, say 520,000 years ago, then to reach Britain by half a million years ago from say Ubeidiya in Israel (the nearest site outside Europe which we know was occupied in the period), requires only a yearly range expansion of 0.5km per annum for a coastal route or 0.2km per annum on a direct route across the continent. Expansion would not have been steady, but would have been faster through areas low in resources and vice versa; but the important point is to understand the long timescales involved, and to appreciate the amount of time available for the hominids to adjust to the different climate, geography and seasonality of Europe.

Moreover, the night-time and winter cold of the upland areas and deserts of Africa, not to mention the extreme seasonality of northern and north-eastern Africa, would probably have made the climate along the northern shores of the Mediterranean seem quite equitable by comparison. Surely this is the key to hominid success in Europe - namely, that on the whole the extremes of climate in the western end of the continent are not particularly marked, with the effect that food resources are rarely under the stresses they are often put to in Africa both north and south of the Sahara. An Afrocentric viewpoint, with other regions seen as the poor relations, has predominated over many years of Palaeolithic research and deserves to be brought up short. Africa may have been the cradle and nursery of humankind, but Europe and Asia were the schools of learning that saw humankind into adulthood.

So by whatever route and after many thousands of years the colonisers walked into southern Britain via the chalk downland that connected England to France. Some of them presumably followed the coast round to the west; and at Boxgrove, the evidence of some of their activities has been preserved in situ. What further insights, then, does it allow us into their behaviour and lifestyle?

At present it is not possible to assign any seasonality in the killing of large mammals at Boxgrove, especially as many of the remains are so fragmentary. However, given that the interglacial climate was very similar to today's, and that the resident animals would not have needed to move off in winter, we may assume a year-round occupation of the area. It is almost certain that with or without fire, for which there is no evidence at Boxgrove, clothing would have been needed to survive even a normal southern English winter.

Of course this clothing is likely to have been rudimentary, in the form of hides and skins. The interesting point is that these `clothes' would have required a degree of preparation to make them wearable. Unless a skin is treated very quickly it will either go as stiff as a board or attract every insect and parasite for miles, and eventually rot. The evidence for careful skinning of the carcasses, and the discovery of a handaxe this summer with the distinctive wear-pattern you get from scraping a hide, confirm that the skins were a valuable commodity.

It must be stressed, however, that the skin was probably only part-cleaned at the kill-site while the butchery was being carried out, and that as soon as butchery was complete the skin and meat were taken back to more permanent and safer areas on the high ground above the cliff. At Boxgrove we only rarely find `retouched' flake tools designed for specialist jobs such as the working of hide, wood and bone. Most types are represented - side scrapers, end scrapers, notch scrapers, and so on - but in total they number no more than 20. One explanation is that they were primarily used in more settled woodland camps on the Downs, an idea reinforced by the lack of campsites in front of the cliff and the removal of very large amounts of meat and skins away from the kill areas (see last month's article). At and around these woodland sites it is likely that wood was worked into spears and other tools and that shed antlers were collected and fashioned into soft hammers, as well as stored for many months. The amount of wear on these hammers shows they were used for long periods, and therefore that they must have been kept and carefully looked after over this time.

I find it hard to envisage all these activities taking place without a form of communication that was more advanced than that of our primate relatives. Hunting and butchering large mammals in open environments would have, in hominids, required a level of planning and co-operation that could only be serviced by speech.

The presence of stone tools in sediments at Boxgrove dating from the beginning of the subsequent Anglian cold period (c 478-423,000 years ago), and from cold sediments at sites like Swanscombe and Clacton, dating from the very end of the Anglian period, point to an adaptability amongst these hominids not previously thought possible. It is not yet known whether they survived in southern England throughout the cold period, but their presence at the beginning and end suggests that populations never moved too far away.

Conversely, they are not yet fully `modern' humans. This is the puzzling conundrum - because contrary to established views they were organised, they could plan and were adaptable. However, unless we are missing a great deal from the non-surviving organic record, they don't appear to have been particularly innovative, probably as a result of a lack of competition. It appears highly likely that hominids did exactly the same sorts of thing during the following two interglacials and even the one after that, the first visible technological change being the introduction, 300-250,000 years ago, of the `Levallois' technique of stone working throughout North Africa and Europe - in which flakes are removed from a prepared stone core.

It begins to look as if the increasing complexity of Middle and early Upper Palaeolithic tool kits (c 100-30,000 years ago) was the result of environmental or climatic pressure, forcing adaptation and innovation during the long cold stages after the last interglacial (c 125,000 years ago), and I infer from this that the earlier cold stages, of around 700-250,000 years ago, were not as severe in their effects on large mammals as we have previously envisaged.

It is also difficult to imagine speech without any manifestation of art or ceremony but at present none has been found. It appears that like the Neanderthals, into which species the Boxgrove hominids evolved, these hominids combined physical prowess with a `partly modern' behavioural pattern in order to survive successfully in Europe for over 400,000 years. Whether they were actually human or not depends on our definition of the term; but it is certainly time to study them as a species in their own right, rather than to position them either as tool-assisted apes or as a failed model of ourselves.

Mark Roberts is the Director of the Boxgrove Project

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