Finding the New Rome
Voting for archaeology
Editor Simon Denison
Cider & beer
From Ms Ann Hagen
Sir: I enjoyed most of Bettina Arnold's feature on 'political feasts' ('Power drinking in Iron Age Europe', February): she is clearly right to point to the continuation of this tradition from prehistory into the medieval period. The Sutton Hoo ship burial has a number of close parallels to the Hochdorf burial a millennium earlier, and lists of provisions for medieval feasts indicate that heroic eating and drinking continued to demonstrate status in Britain as well as in Ireland.
The subject of my MPhil research was Anglo-Saxon food and drink (now published by Anglo-Saxon Books) and I have to point out that when it comes to the discussion of drinks, two errors are repeated. 'Beer' does not derive from bère, the Old English for 'barley'. The Anglo-Saxon word beor referred to a sweet, strong drink, not made from cereals, and probably a fruit wine/cider/perry. Similarly, Norman-French bere refers to cider, and Old Norse bjorr is considered to have been a strongly-fermented cider. (Beor, bère and bjorr may all have derived from Latin bibere, 'to drink'.) Arguably beor was stronger than wine since yeast in cider can work at concentrations of up to 18 per cent alcohol. Ealu (ale) was used to translate Latin cervisia, a cereal-derived drink, which we now call beer.
Hops were cultivated in Germany from at least ad 736, and 768 in France, and were used in brewing. There is definite evidence for their use in Anglo- Saxon England by the 10th century, and given the monastic contacts with the continent, were probably used earlier. Hildegard of Bingen records their preservative properties in the 12th century - all well before post medieval times.
Wylisc (foreign, Welsh) ale was more highly regarded than ordinary ale, and the evidence is that it was stronger. Welsh/Celtic ale was probably sweetened with honey, and - with a smokey taste from the way the barley was kilned - was said to be 'glutinous, heady and soporific'. Irish scholars in Cologne and Liège in the 9th century complained of the inferiority of the continental article.
Mead was also drunk and well-regarded, as was imported wine (and, in the 10th and 11th centuries, home-produced wine). In Anglo-Saxon times it seems to have been important to provide a range of alcoholic drinks, so guests could exercise their personal preference when it came to altering their mood.
From Mrs Maureen Houghton
Sir: I feel like Victor Meldrew. 'I don't believe it!' I uttered in response to your news story on Seahenge ('Seahenge timber circle heading for reburial', February). After the debacle of the retrieval of this monument from the grasp of the sea by English Heritage (which was rightly done in my opinion - this is what rescue archaeology is all about), to just rebury it without preservation is enough to make one weep.
The reassembled artefacts displayed in a state-of-the-art facility would attract visitors from far and wide, bringing spin off employment and boosting the local economy. The attitude of the local council is lamentable in not grasping this opportunity with both hands. A look at the Bronze Age Dover Boat in the darkened, hushed and almost reverential surroundings in its new gallery shows just how appropriate this treatment would be for Seahenge - and much better than to drop it in a muddy hole to rot.
The assertion by English Heritage's chief archaeologist David Miles that it is 'normal' for museums to refuse to take excavated artefacts just does not hold water. That is usually only true when what is being offered are the bucket-loads of bits of pot that turn up on most excavation sites, or more examples of artefacts that museums have dozens of already. The unique timbers of Seahenge are more important, not just as pieces of wood, but for the whole they represent.
The nub of the problem is, as usual, money. Building a new museum and the facilities required would be expensive. However, this sounds like an ideal project for lottery funding. English Heritage should be bringing their weight to bear to ensure that this monument is preserved and displayed for the benefit of the nation. So come on English Heritage, get your finger out, or I really will have cause to weep.
From Prof Peter Forsyth
Sir: Paul Budd has reported in his excellent article ('Meet the metal makers', December) that the earliest metal artefacts are thought to have been formed from outcropping copper metal rather than from metal extracted from an ore. That may well be so for those particular cases, but in view of the extreme scarcity of this 'native' metal it would seem likely that, in a wider context, copper as metal was independently discovered by the chance reduction of the more plentiful ore.
However, such considerations are of little consequence to the course of history. Progress could only be made when those early tool makers recognised the importance of that elastic/plastic behaviour that metals possess.
Before the discovery of metal, tool making had been a matter of the exploitation of the fracture characteristics of brittle materials such as flint, where they can be flaked by skilfully directing a force that produces and grows crack-like defects, or exploits those already present in the material. Flint is brittle because it cannot plastically deform to relieve the stress concentrations provided by the flaws, and herein lies the essential difference between its mechanical behaviour and that of a metal such as copper.
The early tool makers, without an understanding of the theory of fracture mechanics, still recognised the benefits to be gained from using a material, copper, with what we would now describe as having high fracture toughness. However, from that time onward they were faced with the problem of combining the metal's inherent toughness with sufficient hardness for their purpose, but without the fundamental knowledge that we now possess.
This they managed to do to a surprising degree, and present day metallurgical research - while providing scientifically based explanations for the properties of those materials developed by the 'trial and error' methods of our forebears - has had less success in exploiting this new knowledge. Metallurgists and engineers still face this same problem of combining adequate toughness with strength (hardness), hence the mechanical failures that plague the travelling public and many others.
On a more abstract note, it now appears from considerations of the inter-atomic forces present in metals, that they should not behave in this plastic manner, but be brittle like flint. The plastic behaviour arises from the presence of dislocations in the metal lattice, those extremely small regions where there is a misfit between neighbouring atoms.
Thus it transpires that the small 'crack-like' flaws in flint so reduce its fracture strength to enable it to be flaked under loads that can be applied by the human hand, and the lattice misfits in metals make them plastic enough to be formed into useful shapes. So although both types of material have played their part in man's history, their usefulness has depended largely on their defects.
From Mr Peter Davies
Sir: Two articles in your February issue, one following the other, raise an interesting point. The first ('Great Sites: Traprain Law') indicated that Traprain Law hillfort was likely to have been a significant tribal centre in the Bronze and Iron Ages. The second ('Power drinking in Iron Age Europe') showed that in the Iron Age at least the tribal Great & Good indulged in some fairly heroic drinking.
One of the requirements for 'prodigious quantities of booze' is prodigious quantities of water. Where was the water source at Traprain Law (and other similar hillforts)? Perhaps the beer was brewed at the bottom and carried to the top for parties. Or was the water carried to the top and the beer ceremonially brewed up there? What about the lower orders? Had the inhabitants bred a strain of non- drinking animals? What is certainly the case is that there was a requirement to transport a considerable quantity (and weight) of liquid to the top of a hill.
One can easily work out the daily amount to be moved by multiplying the supposed number of people/animals by whatever daily intake seems appropriate. What, then, was all this water (or booze) transported in? Where is the evidence at Traprain Law; or at any other hillfort for that matter? The truth is that no site is defendable - let alone liveable in - for any length of time without adequate water and hilltops are notoriously deficient in supplies of running water.
We welcome letters from readers. They may be emailed to Mike Pitts the Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org or faxed to 01904 671384. They may be edited.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005