The Fascination of Ancient Beverages

re-pieced grooved pottery wine amphora with chunk missing
Egyptian wine amphora dating to Byzantine times

I have a desperate fascination for ancient wines, beers, and meads.  I love everything about them – trade patterns, methods of making and storing them, recipes, social usage, storage/presentation vessels, agricultural sources for ingredients – it just doesn’t end.  And when I say ancient, well, I’ve stopped using “historical” ’cause most folks think historical is seventeenth century.  I’ll admit feeling the pull of finding Shackleton’s cases of whiskey and brandy, frozen in the expedition’s Antarctic hut a hundred years ago.  But when I say historical I mean third century, preferably BC.  I’ll go as late as tenth century ACE if I absolutely must.  Well, all right, the fourteenth century has an awful lot of recorded regulation and recipes available.  It is nice to have less guesswork; sometimes the really early stuff is mostly conjecture.  Shrouds of archaeological mystery are the ultimate tease.

I have been following with interest the increasing scientific understanding of ancient beverages.  I was enchanted when I first discovered descriptions of beverages found in ancient tombs, knowing that what was really happening was elaborate, careful analysis of scrapings off the insides of funerary vessels.  It’s far more fun to imagine what the funeral was like than to think of dry, dusty film left on age-dimmed bronze cauldrons.  Eventually I realized that most of the analyses I was so enjoying were done by one lab, the Biomolecular Archaeology Lab at U.Penn, headed by one particular scientist, Dr. Pat McGovern.  What a career to have!  Becoming an acknowledged expert in ancient beverages – the ones I read about are all fermented – traveling the world to compare remnants of three thousand year old wine here, seven thousand year old beer there.  It’s incredibly romantic.  Or I’ve totally lost perspective, take your pick.

(The Lab is actually titled Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory of Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health.  Well, somebody’s gotta figure out the final feasts that went with these beverages!)

I happened on an article this week about a museum that was storing  – get this – a bottle of Roman wine at least 1,650 years old.  Still sealed in a contemporary glass bottle.  A bottle of Roman wine!!!  Are you already dying to taste it, or at least buy tramadol no prescription know what it would’ve tasted like fresh?  I sure am!  Give me the recipe, I want to make it!  Of course the first person I thought of was Dr. McGovern, who is the Indiana Jones of ancient wines, beers, and extreme beverages.  I immediately emailed the gentleman.  Of course this was old news to him.  He mentioned there are other liquid examples out there, even older.  WHAT????  WET samples??  How have I never known about this??

Until this, all the really ancient beverages I’d read about had been analyzed from dry residue, mostly the ghosts of Royal pleasures.  One or two analyses weren’t even done by Dr. McGovern.  Just think  – seven thousand year old wine, nine thousand year old beer, heck, the earliest identified wine/bread/beer yeast dates to 3150 BC (Egypt).  Thank goodness for archaeologists finding pottery and other vesesels  that hold those clues.

So I’m off a-Googling to get a sense of what wonderful new mysteries are out there.  Sure enough, we have other, older liquid examples of fermented beverages.  Dr. McGovern analyzed a 3,000-yeabronze Chinese drinking vessel, slender and tall, about 3000 years oldr-old wine from hermetically sealed bronze vessels found in Shang Dynasty burial tombs from the Yellow River Basin.  The bronze had a light layer of rust around the seal, which is why it hadn’t all evaporated away.  He commented that, when he first opened the vessel, it had a floral aroma.  You can find the paper he wrote with NIH on the U.S. National Library of Medicine website.

There may be liquid left in bronze ritual drinking vessels that can be traced back to the Western Zhou Dynasty (11th century BC to 771 BC, about the same time as the Shang Dynasty tombs).  This find has the world’s second largest bronze wine vessel holder, but it’s not clear that that’s the vessel that may contain liquid.

So, they’re out there.  Really ancient vessels containing really ancient wine exist.  Dr. McGovern has worked with Dogfish Head to re-create some of the ancient beverages he’s analyzed – Midas Touch, Chateau Jiahu, Chicha  and Theobroma all come from those collaborations (thank you, Dogfish Head and Dr. McGovern!).  Dogfish Head is adding a distillery to their breweries and brewpubs, but please, who will take on re-creating some of these ancient wines?


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