It’s traditional to have an alcoholic drink at a celebration or a feast. There’s a wide variety to choose from today. But what did they drink 4500 years ago at feasts at Durrington Walls and other Neolithic ceremonial centres? Were they drinking alcohol? If so, what were the ingredients, and how was it made?
Merryn and Graham Dineley have been investigating the archaeological evidence from a practical and technological perspective. In this blog they explain what their research has revealed.
Sugar and alcohol in the Neolithic
All alcoholic drinks are made from sugar – grapes for wine, honey for mead and malted grain for ales and beers. Yeast converts the sugar into alcohol. This is alcoholic fermentation, although there are other kinds of fermentation that don’t result in alcohol, such as making yoghurt, food preservation and more.
What sugars were available 4500 years ago in Neolithic Britain? The possibilities are limited.
We can probably eliminate grapes, because there is no evidence for grape cultivation in the British Isles at this time. Country wines made with flowers, for example dandelion or elderflower, can also be ruled out. Why? Because flowers don’t ferment – it’s the added sugars that make the alcohol.
In Neolithic Britain there were no native fruits sweet enough to ferment into alcohol. Blackberries, elderberries, sloes and crab apples are all sour fruits with very little sugar. They require several bags of sugar to make an alcoholic drink.
So there were only two options in Neolithic Britain: honey for making mead, and cereals for malting, mashing and brewing into ale or beer. Honey could have been gathered from wild bees’ nests, but there would only have been enough for small amounts of mead. The best source of abundant sugars for fermentation was grain. What evidence do we have for the processing of grain into ale?
The malting and mashing processes
Grain is usually associated with making flour, bread or porridge. However, it can also be malted. The malting process (partial germination) transforms the grain. When grains begin to germinate, enzymes are released that convert grain starch into sugar. It’s possible to make plenty of malt sugars by mixing crushed malt with water, then heating it gently. The enzymes reactivate in the mash tun and complete the conversion of starch into sugar. This is the saccharification and it’s the basis for all ales and beers made from the grain. It results in a ‘sweet mash’ of grain and liquid.
Separate the liquid from the mash and you have what brewers today call ‘spent grain’ and ‘wort’, the sweet liquid that’s fermented into ale or beer. The ale is consumed. Spent grain is fed to pigs and cattle, so doesn’t survive in the archaeological record. Nevertheless, although the evidence for malting, mashing and fermentation is rare, some indications that the brewing process took place in the Neolithic can be found in the archaeological record.
The discovery of pigs’ teeth with caries (signs of decay) at Durrington Walls is very interesting. They indicate that these pigs were fed something sweet to fatten them up. The initial explanation was that the pigs may have been fed honey, but it is unlikely that honey would have been available in large quantities or that such a valuable food resource would have been fed to pigs. Spent grain, still slightly sweet and highly nutritious, is far more likely.
Brewer’s spent grain, or ‘draff’, makes excellent animal fodder. Breweries today sell or give it away to local farmers for animal feed. If thrown away, it’s eaten by slugs, worms, rodents and birds. Spent grain is biodegradable.
Carbonised grain, however, is not biodegradable. It can survive on an archaeological site for thousands of years. This charred or burnt grain, often damaged and with missing embryos, is found throughout the British Isles at excavations of rectangular timber buildings dated to the Neolithic. The condition of the carbonised grain indicates the sort of processing involved. When grain has partly germinated, the embryo of the grain is missing; this is the part of the grain where growth begins.
In Bronze Age, Iron Age or medieval contexts, archaeologists have interpreted finds of carbonised grain with missing embryos as good evidence for malting. Could a similar interpretation apply in a Neolithic context? We think so.
In the late 1970s, thousands of carbonised grains were found during excavations at Balbridie in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, the site of a large rectangular timber building dating from the early Neolithic period. What kind of grain processing happened here? When some of the grains were examined by the author, some were missing their embryos. This could mean that these first farmers knew how to make malt, a fundamental ingredient for ale and beer, and how to make fermentable sugars from the grain by ‘mashing in’.
Another possible grain barn or malt house has been excavated at Hallbreck Farm on Wyre, Orkney. Thousands of carbonised grains were found in the remains of an early Neolithic timber building with stone footings. It had a well repaired clay floor, perfect for malting. Both these buildings, Balbridie and Wyre, were destroyed by fire – a common fate for malt barns, when drying the malt goes wrong and the fire gets out of control.
The evidence from pots
Ceramic pots are needed for ‘mashing in’ and also for fermentation. Thousands of sherds of Grooved Ware – a flat-bottomed, bucket-shaped pottery – were found at Durrington Walls. Some of the pots had a volume of up to eight gallons, perfect as fermentation vessels. At Skara Brae, Orkney, a huge Grooved Ware pot with a volume of up to 30 gallons was found during excavations in the 1930s. This pot had been placed beside the hearth, the best place for fermenting ale.
There’s interesting organic residue evidence for late Neolithic ale from excavations at the ceremonial site at Balfarg, Fife, Scotland. Cereal residues and meadowsweet, both pollen and flower heads, were identified on sherds from a large Grooved Ware pot. Meadowsweet is a traditional herb which was used to flavour and preserve the ale before hops were introduced in medieval times.
Stonehenge and ale
All this evidence makes it possible that the builders and users of Stonehenge and other Neolithic ceremonial sites in the British Isles knew how to make malt and ale from grain. The transformation of grain into ale can easily be described as a ritual activity. You have to know what to do with the grain and how to do it, providing the right conditions for success at each stage of the brewing process.
What did Neolithic ale taste like? It was probably similar to traditional farmhouse ales that are still made today, but without the hops. Traditional brewing plants and herbs, for example meadowsweet, yarrow, heather, juniper or bog myrtle, could have been used as flavourings and preservatives.
Grain could have been a high-status crop, grown for making malt and ale. It was not just for flour, bread, porridge or gruel as is often assumed.
Find out more
- You can read more about prehistoric feasts and feasting on our website.
- If you’d like to know more about brewing grain into ale, Merryn has put much of her research onto a fascinating blog. Her published papers and MPhil, ‘Barley Malt and Ale in the Neolithic’, are also online.
Top image: Barley, one of the earliest cultivated grains. © Merryn Dineley