Flavin’s Corner
9-7-01

Shit Faced

A good friend of mine recently took offense at a news story describing the modern recreation of ancient beer, as it was made in the Orkney’s, c.3200-2200 BCE.  Apparently dung was used in the firing process and imparted a strong and noticeable taste from the clay vessel to the beer, and he seems uncomfortable that his Scottish antecedents were occasionally shit faced.  I’m truly at a loss to explain my friend’s reaction, as he’s tried home-brewing and understands the history of beer has included some disturbing ingredients at one time or another.  Bathroom observances aside, it’s about the beer.  I wonder what the alcohol level is in the recreated beer.

The news story touches on a few controversies, of which dung as a flavoring for beer is the least exciting, for me, that is.  I know, for some getting shit faced is more than a hobby and can be a way of life.  Still, I’m more concerned with the other ingredients in the ancient beer and the claim that originally grain was grown for beer and not bread.  For anyone who’s ever downed a warm Heineken and expected refreshment, it’s a fact that some beers taste real bad, and making a movement to the bathroom is eventually expected.

As far as the remarkably well preserved village of Skara Brae in the Orkneys goes, those eight or so interconnected houses have aroused wonder in me for some time now.  They’re just so cool...  However, sadness creeps in when I consider how precarious the occupation was, as most were just kids at any given time during the occupation of Skara Brae.  Chris Scarre writes: “...little more than half the population reached adulthood.  According to the specialists who analyzed these bone assemblages, few of the people buried there survived beyond thirty and none beyond fifty.” [Note: See:Exploring Prehistoric Europe, by Chris Scarre, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 110.]  I’ve also read that there were probably no more than 50 individuals alive at any given time.  For the Skara Brae community to survive as long as it did, certain survival technologies must have been passed down as soon as a kid was old enough to understand.  Oh, they were probably in touch with other communities in the Orkneys, as well as mainland Scotland, but such contacts could have been rare, possibly yearly, or at the death of a middle-aged “elder.”  As far as how old one had to be to build a skin-boat, go fishing, plant some barley and make a keg of beer, is anyone’s guess. 

Much is often made of the 1516 Reinheitsgebot purity standards for German beer, though it’s assumed smaller brewers and home-brewers continued to add odd and bizarre things to beer.  The Sumerians and the Egyptians were both quite fond of chunky beer (the gold and Lapis Lazuli straws give it away), as were the Hebrews.  Additions to beer for flavoring have always been common, but the Skara Brae beer suggests some additives may have had psychoactive properties thereby making the beer something of a ritualistic or magical drink.  The mention of Solanaceae being originally in the Skara Brae beer is disturbing, but could lead to a better understanding of European folklore and tradition.  Whether henbane seeds, mandrake root, or belladonna berries were added to the beer matters little, as all contain the chemicals scopolamine and atropine.  One scary thing, however, is that a Solanaceae paste applied to skin gave rise to flying witches and marauding werewolves, but Solanaceae taken orally in significant doses is generally fatal.

Analyzing the remains of beer at Skara Brae extends our knowledge of the past, yet there is so much more to understand.  While folks living and drinking beer in Scotland c. 3200 BCE is now a matter of record, it’s likely we’ll discover other examples of beer-making from thousands of years before this.  This may further evidence that previous models of a “Neolithic revolution” and a gradual “wave-of-advance” spread of agriculture from the Near East and Anatolia are slowly giving way to an approach of Mesolithic European populations as foragers who may have tended certain plants, allowing the possibility of many “inventions” of agriculture, rather than a single occurrence.

Because of the high number of recovered remains of peas, beans, and other legumes from the Mesolithic site of Abeurador, France, some have suggested cultivation, but that seems a bit much at so early a date.  What is significant in this discussion of ancient beer, however, is that the legumes were all but inedible in their natural state and a soaking technology had to be applied for them to be consumed.  At some later point, this same soaking technology was applied to wild grains to make a gruel, and the gruel was either dried and baked as bread or allowed to ferment with the introduction of a natural yeast and beer was produced.  It is therefor unnecessary for a formal introduction of farming to allow for an early production of beer. [Note: On Abeurador and legumes, see Europe in the Neolithic: the creation of new worlds, by Alasdair Whittle, London: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 19.]

I expect, when analyzed, that some of the Neolithic (and later Chalcolithic) European pottery to demonstrate examples of early beer, as well as reveal traces of Solanaceae.  Paleobotany, as a science, is still in its infancy, but between the visual identification of plants impressed into clay vessels, as well as chemical analysis of actual content remains (such as at Skara Brae), as examples of prehistoric Solanaceae usage are known, some models of women working at home and men working in the woods may have to be modified to include some serious partying when the work was done.  I’m joking, of course.  Solanaceae intoxication is not something one willingly experiences just to relax from a hard day.  Simply, it’s a chemical adjunct to primitive religion, with rituals which may have extended from Meso and Neolithic Europe into modern times.  I find that possibility far more exciting than early Scots getting shit faced.

Reaching for a cold one,
Rick

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