Tag Archives: Archaeology

The Beer Archaeologist

Patrick McGovern, an archaeologist and adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is considered the world’s leading expert on ancient brewing techniques and alcohol-related traditions. In recent years, he’s been a big part of a movement to recreate ancient recipes for beer (or mead/cider/whatever) with some pretty big successes. McGovern makes the case that beer has played a much larger role in history than one would initially think:

The ancients were liable to spike their drinks with all sorts of unpredictable stuff—olive oil, bog myrtle, cheese, meadow­sweet, mugwort, carrot, not to mention hallucinogens like hemp and poppy. But Calagione and McGovern based their Egyptian selections on the archaeologist’s work with the tomb of the Pharaoh Scorpion I, where a curious combination of savory, thyme and coriander showed up in the residues of libations interred with the monarch in 3150 B.C. (They decided the za’atar spice medley, which frequently includes all those herbs, plus oregano and several others, was a current-day substitute.) Other guidelines came from the even more ancient Wadi Kubbaniya, an 18,000-year-old site in Upper Egypt where starch-dusted stones, probably used for grinding sorghum or bulrush, were found with the remains of doum-palm fruit and chamomile. It’s difficult to confirm, but “it’s very likely they were making beer there,” McGovern says.

The brewers also went so far as to harvest a local yeast, which might be descended from ancient varieties (many commercial beers are made with manufactured cultures). They left sugar-filled petri dishes out overnight at a remote Egyptian date farm, to capture wild airborne yeast cells, then mailed the samples to a Belgian lab, where the organisms were isolated and grown in large quantities.

Back at Dogfish Head, the tea of ingredients now inexplicably smacks of pineapple. McGovern advises the brewers to use less za’atar; they comply. The spices are dumped into a stainless steel kettle to stew with barley sugars and hops. McGovern acknowledges that the heat source should technically be wood or dried dung, not gas, but he notes approvingly that the kettle’s base is insulated with bricks, a suitably ancient technique.

As the beer boils during lunch break, McGovern sidles up to the brewery’s well-appointed bar and pours a tall, frosty Midas Touch for himself, spurning the Cokes nursed by the other brewers. He’s fond of citing the role of beer in ancient workplaces. “For the pyramids, each worker got a daily ration of four to five liters,” he says loudly, perhaps for Calagione’s benefit. “It was a source of nutrition, refreshment and reward for all the hard work. It was beer for pay. You would have had a rebellion on your hands if they’d run out. The pyramids might not have been built if there hadn’t been enough beer.”

The Beer Archaeologist   [SmithsonianMag]


Moai Foundations

I never knew that the foundations beneath the Moai on Easter Island were so extensive!


Nantucket Whaler Lost in Pacific Tells Its Tale At Last

The discovery of a Nantucket whaler which sank in the Pacific promises to shed new light on the story of George Pollard Jr.

In the annals of the sea, there were few sailors whose luck was worse than George Pollard Jr.’s.

Pollard, you see, was the captain of the Essex, the doomed Nantucket whaler whose demise, in 1820, came in a most unbelievable fashion: it was attacked and sunk by an angry sperm whale, an event that inspired Herman Melville to write “Moby-Dick.”

Unlike the tale of Ahab and Ishmael, however, Pollard’s story didn’t end there: After the Essex sank, Pollard and his crew floated through the Pacific for three months, a journey punctuated by death, starvation, madness and, in the end, cannibalism. (Pollard, alas, ate his cousin.)

Despite all that, Pollard survived and was given another ship to steer: the Two Brothers, the very boat that had brought the poor captain back to Nantucket.

Nantucket Whaler Lost in Pacific Tells Its Tale At Last [NYTimes]

Metal Detectorist Unearths $1M in Roman Coins

Dave Crisp, a hospital chef and self-described ‘metal detectorist’ has found a stash of 52 000 Roman coins dating from late in the 3rd century AD buried under a farmer’s field near Frome in Somerset in Southern England:

Initially, Crisp found 21 coins, but when he unearthed the pot, he knew he needed archaeological help to excavate them.

The hoard contains 766 coins bearing an image of the Roman general Marcus Aurelius Carausius, who ruled Britain independently from AD 286 to AD 293 and was the first Roman emperor to strike coins in Britain.

Somerset County Council archaeologists excavated the pot — a type of container normally used for storing food — it weighed 160kg (350 pounds) and contained 52,500 coins.

Amateur Unearths 52 000 Roman Coins Worth $1M [CNN]

Underwater Archaeology Photoset

The Christian Science Monitor has a brilliant photoset about underwater archaeology. The picture above is:

The wreck of the British Merchant Navy ship, SS Thistlegorm, sunk in 1941, is seen beneath the Red Sea. The ship is now a well-known dive site.

Where I work they have the full blueprints of the Regalskeppet Vasa on the wall in the conference room, which has never seemed like the best choice of ship to me…

Underwater Archaeology [CSMonitor]

Discovery Suggests Humans May Have Been Going to Sea for Much Longer Than Previously Thought

The stone tools found above were found on the island of Crete and are thought to be around 130 000 years old. Crete has been an island for about five million years, and it has been thought previously that humans have only been going to sea for about 30 000 years. This new discovery would seem to radically alter the past hypothesis about seafaring. From the New York Times:

The Plakias survey team went in looking for material remains of more recent artisans, nothing older than 11,000 years. Such artifacts would have been blades, spear points and arrowheads typical of Mesolithic and Neolithic periods.

“We found those, then we found the hand axes,” Dr. Strasser said last week in an interview, and that sent the team into deeper time.

“We were flummoxed,” Dr. Runnels said in an interview. “These things were just not supposed to be there.”

Word of the find is circulating among the ranks of Stone Age scholars. The few who have seen the data and some pictures — most of the tools reside in Athens — said they were excited and cautiously impressed. The research, if confirmed by further study, scrambles timetables of technological development and textbook accounts of human and prehuman mobility.

Discovery Dates Seafaring 100 000-plus Years Ago [NYTimes]

Neolithic Medicine More Advanced than Previously Thought

A recent discovery of a Neolithic man with an amputated forearm suggests that the medical knowledge of that period may be more advanced than previously thought:

Early Neolithic surgeons used a sharpened flint stone and rudimentary anaesthetics to amputate the elderly man’s left forearm, and treated the wound in sterile conditions, experts believe.

Evidence of the early surgery was unearthed by Cécile Buquet-Marcon and Anaick Samzun, both archaeologists, and Philippe Charlier, a forensic scientist, during work on a tomb discovered at Buthiers-Boulancourt, about 40 miles south of Paris.

Stone Age Amputee Proves Neolithic Medics More Advanced Than Previously Thought [Telegraph]