22 October 2001
Prehistoric brewing: the true story
On issue 18 of Archaeo News we mentioned the research of Merryn Dineley, a historian from Manchester University. Our news was a condensed version of an article originally published by The Independent but, according to Mrs Dineley, the press misrepresented her research. So, we are now glad to clarify the situation, publishing the "true story" of prehistoric brewing using Merryn's own words:
"Over the past 5 or 6 years I have been looking for the archaeological evidence for brewing in prehistory. This began as an M Phil for Manchester University (1999) continuing as personal research. There is cereal-based organic residue evidence for brewing on both Bronze Age (eg the Strathallan Beaker, dated to c1,500 BC) and Neolithic Grooved Ware pottery (eg Balfarg Riding School, dated to the 4th Millennium BC) - these may be the remains of beer/ale.
Experimental research in cereal processing is valid because the biochemistry is the same now as it ever was, so with the help of Graham Dineley, who is a brewer, we have been re-creating a prehistoric ale. We work on an open hearth in the garden. We flavour the ale with meadowsweet. We use earthenware pots, sealed with beeswax to make them watertight. When we went to Orkney in September for the Science Festival, we did a demonstration of the mashing process (where the sugars are extracted from the malted barley) and we used re-created Unstan Ware pots made by a local potter (Andrew Appleby of Fursbeck Pottery). These pots were fired in the prehistoric way - the clamp-firing method. This involves a fire of wood, peat & sawdust and the use of seaweed and cow dung to cover it up and seal it.
The dung never comes into contact with the pots. Beer, indeed anything made in the pots would most definately not taste of cow dung. This is the source for the so-called "dung flavoured beer" story (which is now, according to some press articles, being sold on Orkney!)
As for "pub" or "brewery" - other people have applied these terms to my research - I have looked at the 5,000-year-old Neolithic/Stone Age settlement at Skara Brae, Orkney. The stone buildings there are very well preserved and I have interpreted some of them in terms of cereal processing activity - malting, mashing and fermentation. All the elements for making ale are there at Skara Brae but it was just one of many activities - fishing, hunting, keeping animals, minding children, cooking - a crofting lifestyle, with ale fermenting in a Grooved Ware bucket by the fire. It was not a brewery, nor a pub. I would be grateful to get these main points corrected."
* Dineley, M & Dineley G., 2000 "Neolithic Ale: Barley as a source of sugars for fermentation" in Fairbairn, A. (ed) Plants in the Neolithic and Beyond; pub Oxbow Books
* Dineley M. & Dineley G., 2000 "From Grain to Ale: Skara Brae a case study" in Ritchie, A. (ed) Neolithic Orkney in its European Context pub McDonald; Institute for Archaeological research, Univ of Cambridge
* Dineley, M., 1996 "Finding magic in Stone Age real ale" British Archaeology, November