Revealing invisible brews: A new approach to the chemical identification of ancient beer

Publication date: Available online 27 June 2018Source:Journal of Archaeological Science
Author(s): E. Perruchini, C. Glatz, M.M. Hald, J. Casana, J.L. Toney
While ancient Near Eastern cuneiform texts and iconography unambiguously demonstrate the social, economic, and ritual significance of beer, direct archaeological evidence for beer production or consumption remains surprisingly rare. This scarcity of material evidence renders it difficult to extrapolate information about the ingredients and production processes of beer, on the one hand, and the paraphernalia and social contexts of its consumption, on the other. In recent decades, organic residue analysis has become an essential tool in the identification of ancient alcoholic beverages, but research on Near Eastern beer has focused largely on production and storage vessels, whose form, archaeological context, and associated macroscopic residues already indicated their use in beer production. In this paper, we present a novel field sampling protocol that prevents contamination along with a refined organic residue analysis methodology that relies on a series of co-occurring compounds to identify confidently beer in ceramic vessels. The same compounds were identified in several modern beer samples and, thus, support our identification of a similar fermented barley-based beverage in archaeological samples from the late second millennium BCE site of Khani Masi in northeastern Iraq. The results presented in this paper allow us, for the first time, to unambiguously link a diverse range of vessel types to the consumption and production of beer, identify a fundamental change in Mesopotamian consumption practices, and shed light on the cultural dimensions of Babylonia’s encounter with the Zagros-Mesopotamian borderlands.