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Cover of British Archaeology issue 57

Issue 57

February 2001



Seahenge timber circle heading for reburial

New timber circle appears at Seahenge

Revolutionary steel factory excavated in Sheffield

Mercian watermill found near Welsh border

Criminals' skulls and chemistry experiments

Mesolithic hunting camp found on Scottish mountain

In Brief


Great sites
Ian Armit on an Iron Age tribal centre at Traprain Law

Power drinking
Bettina Arnold on the drinking politics of Iron Age leaders

Gateway to Rome
Simon Keay on a spectacular new survey of Rome's harbour


Political comment
George Lambrick wants an international heritage policy


Offa's Dyke, Early tin, Bells again


Simon Denison on anniversaries, events and archaeology

Peter Ellis

Regular column


Holy images by Simon Denison

Coastal sites by Gustav Milne

Food forward by Mike Allen

Thrill of the Chase by Chris Gerrard

Iron Age coins by Jonathan Williams

Flint mines by Peter Topping

CBA update

favourite finds

Ancestors of Odysseus. Sebastian Payne on finds made during a youthful excavation in a Greek cave.


ISSN 1357-4442

Simon Denison


Power drinking in Iron Age Europe

Iron Age leaders bolstered their claim to rule by giving feasts awash with prodigious quantities of booze, writes Bettina Arnold.

At some time around 550 BC, a great leader was buried under a mound in what is now south-west Germany. The walls of his log cabin-style burial chamber were draped in fabric, and he was laid out on a decorated bronze couch covered with furs and other material.

About him lay the trappings of wealth and power. The couch was held up by cast bronze human figures riding unicycles. Around the chieftain's neck lay a gold torc, and on his right wrist was a gold bracelet. His bronze belt plate and iron dagger were both decorated with sheet gold, as were his shoes. On his head he wore a conical hat made of birchbark. A quiver of arrows hung on the wall.

Yet most impressive of all was the array of feasting and drinking equipment buried with him. Against one wall of the chamber stood a four-wheeled wagon laden with nine bronze plates and three bronze serving platters, as well as equipment for carving and serving large cuts of meat. Eight large drinking horns, probably from the now-extinct aurochs, were decorated with gold and hung from hooks in the wall, while a ninth horn - a tremendous thing capable of holding 10 pints (5.5 litres) - hung over the chieftain's head.

In one corner stood an enormous bronze cauldron with decorative cast bronze lions around the rim. Badly worn, and repaired several times, the cauldron had clearly enjoyed hearty use over a number of years. And inside, to accompany our chieftain to the Otherworld, it contained over 600 pints (350 litres) of mead. By the time the grave at Hochdorf near Stuttgart was excavated by Jörg Biel in 1978-79, the mead had become a dark, shrunken, cake-like deposit in the bottom of the cauldron.

The inclusion of feasting equipment, drinking horns, a cauldron and alcohol in this prince's tomb provides the clearest possible evidence for the importance of feasting in Iron Age Europe. Moreover the Hochdorf burial is far from unique. Every undisturbed, high status burial found on the Continent from the late Hallstatt and early La Tène periods (about 600-400 BC) contains feasting and drinking equipment. My own excavations last summer at a burial mound near Heuneburg in Germany produced yet another high-status grave with cauldron and spear points, sword and possibly a shield.

Dispensing prodigious quantities of alcoholic drink to followers was an important part of the political career of a prehistoric leader in western Europe during this period. The archaeology is supported by documentary sources, not only near-contemporary classical texts such as Poseidonius (2nd century BC) but also later texts from Ireland and Wales reflecting the continuation of the tradition.

These texts suggest that the ability to give feasts awash with alcoholic liquor was a key part of a leader's claim to rule. Such feasts might take place at inauguration ceremonies such as dynastic weddings, or to accompany the distribution of loot or booty from raids or trading expeditions.

Feasts of various types - community feasts, work-party feasts given to reward workers for the completion of communal building projects, ritual or even 'political' feasts - have roots deep in prehistory.

Ceramic vessel sets probably used to consume beer or mead appear mainly in male burials from the late Neolithic.

By the Bronze Age drinking vessels were being made of sheet metal, primarily bronze or gold. However, the peak of feasting - and in particular, of the 'political' type of feast - came in the late Hallstatt period (about 600-450 BC), soon after the foundation of the Greek colony of Massalia (Marseille) at the mouth of the Rhine. From that date on, the blood of the grape began to make its way north and east along major river systems together with imported metal and ceramic drinking vessels from the Greek world.

Wine was thus added to the list of mood-altering beverages - such as mead and ale (see coloured text below) - available to establish social networks in Iron Age Europe. Attic pottery fragments found at hillforts such as Heuneburg in Germany and luxury goods such as the monumental 5th century Greek bronze krater (or wine mixing vessel) found at Vix in Burgundy supply archaeological evidence of this interaction. Organic containers such as leather or wooden wine barrels may also have travelled north into Europe but have not survived. It is unknown what goods were traded in return, but they may have included salted meat, hides, timber, amber and slaves.

The rarity value of wine, as well as its relatively long shelf-life compared to ale, added to its appeal for an Iron Age political leader, allowing him to programme his feast and his display of impressive imported goods for the time when it would do him the most political good. Classical authors underline the value of wine to northerners: 'The drink of the wealthy classes is wine imported from Italy or from the territory of Marseille,' wrote Poseidonius (Book 23, paraphrased by Athenaeus). 'The lower classes drink wheaten beer prepared with honey.'

The Vix burial, belonging to a princess who died around 450 BC, shows that feasting goods of the very highest quality were imported from the Mediterranean. The bronze krater, with its gorgon-head handle terminals, frieze decorations and the cast female figure that constitutes the handle of the lid, is the most spectacular piece of classical Greek metalwork to survive anywhere, including all the known pieces from Greece itself. The remaining pieces of the drinking assemblage - all of them imported - are equally impressive.

Feasting equipment found in Iron Age burials across Europe is extremely variable. Metal vessels, mostly bronze, range from enormous cists the size and shape of modern rubbish bins, and cauldrons like the Hochdorf example, to pitchers and single serving cups. Sieves were used for straining out spices, flower petals, wax and other additives, and ladles to serve out the brew. Pottery vessels include cups, goblets, bowls, bottle-like forms, and pitchers, both locally-made and - during the Iron Age - increasingly imported from Etruria and Greece. Plates and trenchers made of bronze also occur, although organic materials like wood were probably more common but tend not to be preserved.

Cutlery is limited to knives and occasionally axes, probably to remove joints of meat, although in Britain meat forks for spearing chunks floating in a large cooking vessel are also found. Other equipment includes couches, possibly in imitation of the Greek and Roman habit of reclining to eat, and fire dogs, probably part of the hearth fittings that would have been the focus of the feast. Some types of feasting equipment remained in use for centuries. Drinking horns, for example, are found from at least 550 BC at Hochdorf until the 18th century in Scotland and Ireland. What, then, occurred at a drinking-feast? And why was alcohol regarded as so important? Unfortunately we have no eye-witness reports by members of these Celtic-speaking cultures. Classical texts suggest that feasts involving a chieftain and his retinue were held in a circle around a central hearth or fireplace, with the alcoholic beverage circulating either in a common cup or being served by retainers.

Several authors refer to a hierarchy within the retinue reflected by the seating arrangements, usually involving proximity to the leader of the group and access to the largest quantity of liquor and the biggest cut of meat. Music was certainly part of Etruscan feasts, and possibly of feasts further north. Dancing may have been involved as well. Unfortunately, the Classical texts are silent on these sorts of details, preferring to report that Celtic feasting involved bragging competitions that frequently led to brawls, even death.

The closest we can get to an insider's account comes from the literature of medieval Ireland. The link between the oral and written traditions there, and to some extent also in Wales, suggests that cultural continuity in certain aspects of society was maintained, surviving even the introduction of Christianity.

Continuity can be demonstrated most easily in the specialised objects and equipment associated with drinking and feasting. Vessels made of bronze, gold, wood, horn and pottery are described in the Irish literature, and these correspond to archaeological finds from the early Iron Age on the Continent and in the British Isles.

The political symbolism of drinking, particularly the connection between laith (Irish for liquor) and flaith (Irish for sovereignty or lordship), appear to have been maintained through time as well. Drinking horns, such as those found at Hochdorf, are frequently referred to as symbols of authority and kingship in Irish poetry, and as late as the 15th century a 300-year-old drinking horn was cited by the Kavanagh family as the basis for their claim to the kingship of Leinster.

The connection between the right to rule and the ability to host a feast at which alcoholic beverages are distributed is a constant in the Irish and Welsh literature. In the Irish Baile in Scail, for example, Conn and his followers are brought by the Phantom before a seated girl wearing a gold crown, with a silver vat in front of her, and a vessel of gold and a gold cup. As in most accounts of such inauguration feasts, the girl is the personification of Ireland, and whoever she offers the ale of sovereignty to will become king in a symbolic wedding ritual.

The girl asks the Phantom to whom the cup of derg flaith (red ale) should be given, and the Phantom indicates Conn. One by one Conn's descendants file past, each name being recorded in ogam script by poets on four staves of yew. When the Phantom and the girl disappear, the drinking equipment that validates Conn's right to rule remains with him as a symbol of his authority.

In another example from the Welsh Mabinogion, Pwyll, Lord of Dyfed, is about to celebrate his marriage to Rhiannon when his rival Gwawl appears on the scene and claims both Rhiannon and the wedding or inauguration feast. Pwyll, in a fit of prenuptial generosity, had promised Gwawl 'anything'. Rhiannon, however, argues that while she may be Pwyll's to 'give', the feast belongs to her as the daughter of the previous king, and she has already promised it to the assembly.

Since Gwawl cannot get both Rhiannon and the feast (ie, the symbol of sovereignty), he consents to wait a year and a day until a new feast can be prepared, and of course in that time Pwyll and Rhiannon hatch a plan to outwit him. Ultimately Pwyll gets Rhiannon and the wedding feast, and through them, the kingdom. The symbolic meaning of alcohol in Iron Age Europe can be partly reconstructed. Alcoholic drinks play a ritual role in many societies, the consumption of wine during Catholic Mass being one example among many. All alcoholic drinks are mood-altering substances, and in many cultures are considered as a way of communing with some form of Otherworld.

This may explain in part why alcoholic drinks are included as grave goods in the burials of Iron Age chieftains. Their inclusion may also imply the leader's right to rule in the Otherworld.

The symbolic value of alcohol over food is underlined by the fact that while alcohol was interred in the Hochdorf grave, no traces of meat or other food were recovered.


There were two alcoholic drinks available to northern European peoples in the pre-Roman Iron Age. One was mead, a fermented honey drink, the other was beer or ale.

Mead required large quantities of honey, itself a valuable commodity in the absence of other sweeteners and before the domestication of the honey bee. One of the earliest examples of mead comes from a Bronze Age burial at Ashgrove in Fife, Scotland dating to about 1000 BC. Ale, more widely available than mead, was made from barley, a grain introduced to Europe from the Near East which made its appearance in Britain around 3000 BC. The word beer in fact comes from the Old English word baere, or barley.

Wine was what 'civilized' people in the worlds of Greece and Rome drank by preference, while beer was shunned because of its association with the non-Mediterranean 'Great Unwashed'. The distaste of Mediterranean cultures for beer is summed up by their pejorative terms for those who consumed it, like the Latin epithet sabairarius (beerswiller).

Prehistoric versions of beer actually were pretty unpalatable. They were sweet, unhopped, thin gruels that could only be consumed through straws to avoid ingesting the non-liquid ingredients. An example of this can be seen represented on a Mesopotamian cylinder seal from the 3rd millennium BC city-state of Ur. The flowers of the hop plant that provide the head and flavour in modern beer and act as a preservative were not added until about 200 AD in Babylon and not until post-medieval times in Europe.

Distilled liquor (including whisky) is unknown in Europe before the 13th century AD.

It is extremely rare to find the remains of alcoholic drinks in prehistoric burials. Most early excavators took great care to scrub all vessels within an inch of their lives, effectively removing all traces of contents. Preservation is contingent on conditions as well.

An early example of mead comes from a Neolithic beaker from Ashgrove Farm, Methilhill, Fife dating to about 1000 BC, which was found to contain two different kinds of honey, possibly representing the remains of some form of fermented mead-like beverage. A Bronze Age oak-coffin burial from a tumulus at Egtved, Denmark, contained a birch-bark vessel that revealed traces of honey, cereal grains (probably emmer wheat) and fruits and leaves used for flavouring, such as meadowsweet (the word actually derives from medesweet, or mead-sweet). The same mixture was found at the Danish Iron Age site of Juellinge. This combination of ingredients would have yielded a mead-ale-fruit wine blend.

Wine residues have been found in amphorae in La Tène contexts in France as well as in Britain. If the preservation conditions turn out to be favourable, the contents might be identified of a bronze cauldron and a ceramic drinking cup found during my own excavations last year of two Iron Age graves near Heuneburg in Germany. It is likely given the date of the burial (6th century BC) that the cauldron will be found to have contained mead, and the cup will show traces of either ale or mead.

Beer and mead, and combinations of mead-beer-fruit wine like the Danish concoction described above, are all still being made today by home brewers. The Sumerians left us written instructions for the production of beer without hops, and similar gruel-like ales that must be sipped through a straw are still produced in some parts of Africa, and elsewhere. The earliest ales were more of a mildly intoxicating food than a beverage.

They were also relatively low in alcohol content compared to mead. However, 'mead' covers a number of variations depending on the amount of honey used, the length of time spent in fermentation, and how the beverage is subsequently mixed.

Iron Age mead was not as potent as the wine produced in the Greek and Roman worlds. If Iron Age élites were concerned with the mood-altering impact of alcoholic beverages - looking to get the biggest bang for their buck - that would explain, at least in part, the appeal of Mediterranean booze.

Bettina Arnold is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA

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