British Archaeology, no 27, September 1997: News

Beer brewing ‘formed part of Neolithic ceremonies’

Getafix, the fictional druid in the Asterix cartoon series – whose main task was to brew a magic potion for his fellow Iron Age villagers – may have been following a centuries-old ceremonial tradition of ‘ritual brewing’ dating from as far back as the Neolithic, according to new research.

Ritual brewing, it has been claimed, may have been one of the main activities that took place at sacred Neolithic ceremonies in the 3rd millennium BC. According to Merryn Dineley, a research student specialising in the prehistory of brewing at Manchester University, a Neolithic priestbrewer would have needed nothing but barley, an oven or hearth, and a large fire-proof pot in order to make beer, all of which are regularly found together at Neolithic ritual sites. ‘Grooved ware’ pottery, sometimes regarded as ritual in function, would have been well suited to the task, Mrs Dineley said.

The idea that beer was brewed in the Neolithic comes from the view that barley may have been first grown in Britain for ritual reasons, rather than as a staple food (see BA, November 1996). The possible organic remains of a brewed drink have been found at three Bronze Age sites in Scotland, all of them ritual sites. Moreover, beer is known to have been brewed in the 3rd millennium BC by the Sumerians.

The association of beer-making with bucket-shaped grooved ware pottery, however, is new. Grooved ware, which is thought to have originated in Orkney but later spread all over Britain, is typically found deliberately broken and buried at ritual sites such as henges. On Orkney it is known from the ritual sites of the Stones of Stenness and Barnhouse – where, unusually, one pot has been found intact buried up to its neck in the ground. According to Mrs Dineley, flat-bottomed grooved ware pots holding one to six gallons are an ideal size for fermentation. Those on Orkney were heavily gritted with volcanic rock, which would have allowed them to withstand the repeated heating and cooling necessary for a successful brew.

The Egyptian method of beer-making – which may have been used in Britain – was to mix part-germinated barley grains and water into barley cakes, and to bake the cakes in an oven or hearth to complete the malting process. These cakes, when mixed again with water and yeast, could be fermented into beer. This process might have been regarded as a ‘magical transformation’, Mrs Dineley said. ‘As the beer ferments, it seems to come alive. ’

Brewing tests have shown that the addition of meadowsweet extends the shelf-life of beer made this way by several weeks. Meadowsweet was one component of the possible prehistoric brews discovered in Scotland, and meadowsweet residues have been found on some grooved ware pottery. Pollen analysis shows it was abundant in Neolithic Orkney.

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First Tewkesbury, now Stamford Bridge

Another important English battlefield is to be lost to housing, as planning permission was granted last month for a development of Barratt homes on the last remaining stretches of open ground at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, where a momentous and celebrated battle was fought in 1066.

The ruling follows a decision earlier this year to allow housing on the site of the 1471 battle of Tewkesbury (see BA, June). Both Tewkesbury and Stamford Bridge belong to the select group of 41 battle sites listed in English Heritage’s Battlefields Register on account of their historical importance and the relative certainty of their locations.

The site of Stamford Bridge, where Harold of England defeated a large invading army under Harald Hardrada of Norway in September 1066 shortly before the Battle of Hastings, was earmarked for development by the local authority some years ago, and is already part-covered by two large recently-built housing estates. English Heritage has been unable to persuade East Riding of Yorkshire Council to relocate the proposed new housing estate, and has worked instead to limit its extent, according to David Fraser, the organisation’s acting conservation director for northern England.

‘The Battlefields Register is not a strong planning document, ’ he said. ‘We have achieved a number of compromises at Stamford Bridge which may not satisfy the wider archaeological community, but which we believe are as far as we can go. ’

According to Peter Addyman, Director of the York Archaeological Trust and a Viking specialist, the ‘wonderfully evocative’ site should never have been earmarked for development. The battle had influenced the course of English and European history, he said. Harald Hardrada’s defeat marked the end of Viking attempts to exert control overseas, while fighting and forced marches exhausted the English army and left them more susceptible to defeat by the Normans, 19 days later at Hastings.

The site, known as Battle Flats, has been regarded locally as the scene of the battle for centuries, long before its identity was confirmed by academic research. ‘Legend is just as real as a heap of potsherds, and more important. It is part of the mental baggage of the nation, ’ Dr Addyman said.

Pressure is now likely to grow on the Government to find ways of bolstering the Battlefields Register by law, as the ease with which it can be disregarded by planning authorities becomes increasingly clear.

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Waterfront ‘used at Synod of Chelsea’

An Anglo-Saxon waterfront recently discovered at Chelsea was probably used by dignitaries attending a historic synod in AD787 in which a third archbishopric was temporarily created in England at Lichfield, according to the archaeologists responsible for the find.

The waterfront, now dated by radiocarbon to within the range of AD700–900, was first reported in BA (November 1996). The new dating confirms its probable association with a palace belonging to the Mercian king, Offa, whose kingdom extended over much of central and southern England in the later decades of the 8th century, and who is known to have signed 12 Mercian charters from his palace in Chelsea.

Fierce resistance to Mercian overlordship in Kent led Offa to summon a synod at Chelsea, at which the chief Mercian see, Lichfield, was granted metropolitan status, with the agreement of the Pope, in an attempt to reduce the importance of Canterbury. Attending the synod were the king, two archbishops, nine bishops, six abbots and eight ealdormen, no doubt with a large entourage and several ships. The elevation of Lichfield proved unpopular, however, and was reversed by Offa’s successor.

The remains of the waterfront – two lines of vertical posts, one of them at least 200m long, representing two phases of the same structure – amount to what is thought to be the largest surviving AngloSaxon waterfront anywhere in Britain.

Evenly spaced in a slightly staggered line, they appear to have held in place a vertical screen, perhaps of wattle and brushwood or planks. In this respect the structure differs markedly from the later Anglo-Saxon waterfronts in the City, which seem to have been revetments consolidating the river bank behind a shallow beach.

Later Anglo-Saxon ships are thought to have been unable to use vertical waterfronts (such as the Roman waterfronts of the City), because the Thames had become increasingly susceptible to high and low tides, according to Mike Webber of the Thames Archaeological Survey. ‘The vertical waterfront at Chelsea implies either that the water-level was still relatively constant in the 8th century, or it may have been a defensive screen behind which vessels were moored, ’ he said.

Lying amongst the timbers, archaeologists also found a wooden club or ‘beater’, shaped like a cricket bat with a knob on the end of its handle. The well-preserved club is thought to date from the Bronze Age. Offa’s waterfront? The posts would probably have held in place a vertical screen of wattle and brushwood

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In brief

Bronze Age road

A Bronze Age wooden track made from woven hurdles has been found in mudflats near North Ferriby on the north bank of the River Humber. It is similar to a track found at Brigg on the south bank of the river in 1880, and could date from c 1500BC, according to its finder, Robert Van de Noort of Hull University. The track, which may have been used by herdsmen to move cattle across what were grasscovered saltmarshes, is rapidly eroding into the river and will almost certainly soon disappear altogether.

An exhibition of the ‘archaeological’ work of artist Simon Callery is taking place at the Oxford University Museum from 22 September to 31 October. Callery wrote in BA (November 1996) about his collaboration with archaeologists at the Iron Age hillfort at Segsbury in Oxfordshire last year.

Funding proposal

A little-publicised proposal in the Dearing report on higher-education funding, which was published this summer, could lead to major changes in the funding of the CBA, the British Schools abroad, and archaeological research generally. The report proposed that an Arts and Humanities Research Council should be set up – to match the sciences and social sciences research councils – to ensure that arts and humanities subjects receive their fair share of Government research funding.

If the proposal is accepted, research funds will no longer be channelled through the Humanities Research Board of the British Academy, which presently disburses about £2.5 million of Government money in research funding annually to all the humanities. The proposal, which calls for an additional £25 million of Government funds each year, could lead to a decrease in other forms of Government funding distributed by the British Academy, such its grants to the CBA and the British Schools – although whether or how this would happen remains unclear.

The British Academy has long been seen by other disciplines as overly generous towards archaeology, and it is possible that a new funding agency would reconsider the ways in which funding is apportioned between the various humanities.

NEWS is compiled by Simon Denison

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1997