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I am delighted to welcome Merryn Dineley to the blog. She is an archaeologist with an interest in traditional brewing and malting, and is one a small group of people actively researching the archaeology of brewing and attempting to give beer back its rightful place in our early heritage.
|Crushed malted barley|
See also: Where were the Viking brew houses?
The Durrington Maltsters by Merryn Dineley
Excavations at Durrington Walls, the enormous Neolithic henge 3km north-east of Stonehenge, revealed extensive evidence of feasting around 2500BC (News, British Archaeology, Nov/Dec 2006). Pots were smashed, meat was roasted and joints of beef and pork were half eaten, then thrown away. Evidence of timber buildings, described as being similar in design to those of the Orcadian Neolithic, was discovered.
The first major excavation at Durrington Walls was in the 1960s, by Geoffrey Wainwright and others. He also thought that important ceremonial and ritual activity took place there, with special or ritual uses for the vast amounts of large, highly decorated Grooved Ware vessels. It seems strange that in reports and discussions of the recent excavations by the Stonehenge Riverside Project, the function and possible contents of the pottery has not been discussed.
Some years ago I suggested that the malting of grain and the brewing of ale were important aspects of domestic and ritual life in Neolithic Britain, and that very large Grooved Ware buckets were suitable for the fermentation of barley wort into ale (British Archaeology November 1996). Wainwright's and Parker Pearson's interpretations of feasting, ritual and ceremony at Durrington Walls seem to support the idea of processing grain into malt to make ale rather than into flour for bread.
The crucial and necessary ingredient for ale is malt. The scrupulously clean clay floors would have been suitable as malting floors and, with easy access to the river and a suitable ceramic assemblage, the crushed malt could have been steeped, then mashed in ceramic bowls and fermented in the large bucket shaped pots. Given the difficulty of transporting large quantities of liquid in heavy pots, the ale was probably made on site. Malted grain is much easier to transport than ale.
There is so much more to grain processing than the daily grind of grain. Assumptions that, in the Neolithic, grain was ground into flour to make bread or was used for porridge or gruel do not stand up to scrutiny.
Unmalted grain has a hard husk, and is almost impossible to grind on a saddle quern.
Malted grain is soft, friable and easily crushed, producing copious fine flour as well as chaff. Malting is the easiest way of dehusking grain; a simple, basic process, rarely discussed in the context of Neolithic agricultural practices and food preparation techniques. The crafts of the maltster and the brewer have been neglected in interpretations of Neolithic domestic and ritual sites.
Malt is partially germinated grain. Upon germination, enzymes begin to convert grain starch into sugars. All grains can be malted, although barley is the most suitable. Bere, the barley probably grown in Neolithic Britain, is the only kind that can be used for both baking and malting. Wheat is the best grain for bread because of the high gluten content. Oats are most useful for making porridge. Different grains are used for different products.
|The 'saccharification' or 'mashing' process. Mashing, for a brewer, is when you gently heat the crushed malt with hot water so that the enzymes in the malt re activate and continue the job of converting grain starch into malt sugars.|
Excavations at the Neolithic site close by the Ring of Brodgar have uncovered a substantial drain and also a building very similar to House 2 at Barnhouse. (i.e. the Ness of Brodgar where, since 2007 when this article was written, evidence has been found of feasting on a huge scale, the biggest stone buildings of the Neolithic in the British Isles and more huge stone drains. Also lots of Grooved Ware pots, varying in size from tiny "paint pots" to drinking vessels and huge bucket shaped, highly decorated pots).
Barnhouse, excavated by Prof. Colin Richards and his team during the 1980s, has provided me with some of the most convincing evidence for malting, mashing and brewing in Neolithic Britain. Barley husks and hearths were found in House 2. There is a network of stone lined drains. Richards refers to an unidentified “liquid product” that may have been stored on the dressers (Dwelling Among the Monuments, McDonald Institute 2005). I believe that this could have been barley ale, probably a sacred drink in the Neolithic.
Residues including animal fats, barley lipids and, for me, an intriguing "sugar of unidentified class” were identified in the fabric of some of the Barnhouse Grooved Ware sherds. Dr Andrew Jones used the technique of gas chromatography and mass spectrometry.
The animal fats discovered might indicate either the contents of the vessel, or they may have been used as a sealant for the pot. This is an explanation that makes good sense. I have used pots, sealed with animal fats.
Barley lipids are very good evidence for the wet processing of malt for sugars and ale, as they are liberated from the grain husk by sparging, that is, by washing liquid malt sugars from the mash using hot water. It is unlikely, if not impossible, for barley lipids to migrate into the fabric of pottery vessels by dry storage. The unidentified sugar is intriguing, originating from either malt or milk, and worthy of further investigation.
Other evidence from Barnhouse and the Ness of Brodgar includes the pottery assemblage, suitable for the manufacture and consumption of ale. Few very large vessels were represented and there were many drinking vessels. Building 8 had a clay floor surrounding it and other buildings, such as House 6, might provide the evidence of a well-repaired and well-kept malting floor.
Malting and brewing were a part of a complex and, as yet, only partially understood ritual and domestic way of life in the Neolithic. The crafts have been neglected in interpretations of these early agricultural communities, and is about time to acknowledge the skills of the maltster and the brewer in Neolithic Britain.
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