The prehistoric transformation
of grain into ale
magic, ceremony, ritual and more
By Merryn Dineley, BA, M. Phil
Graham Dineley, Craft Brewer
My research began in 1995 as an investigation of brewing in Bronze Age Britain. Organic residues similar to those on Bronze Age pottery were identified on Grooved Ware sherds from the Balfarg ceremonial site, Fife. Thus, the focus of my research turned to the Neolithic.
I have been investigating and researching malting and brewing since then and have discovered that it was an important element of ritual and domestic life in the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron ages.
There is a general assumption that, in the Neolithic, grain was ground into flour to make bread, or perhaps some kind of porridge or gruel. Grain can also be malted.
Traditional malting and brewing techniques are the key to understanding grain processing activity in prehistory. Modern and medieval maltsters and brewers use the same techniques as their prehistoric ancestors.
The necessary techniques and skills have evolved and developed over the millennia, originating in the Fertile Crescent some ten thousand years ago and being a major aspect of the Neolithic Revolution, as it spread throughout Europe and even the origins of grain agriculture.
Women were the primary hoe agriculturalists, the nurturers and the main processors of food in the Neolithic. It follows that they first learned, practised and communicated the complex rituals involved in the successful transformation of grain into malt, malt sugars and ale – the first alchemy? Making ale is an activity steeped in ritual. It requires specialised knowledge, skill and experience.
Evidence of grain in the archaeological record is minimal, it being an ephemeral product, but the material culture survives and it provides sound archaeological evidence given that one understands the malting and brewing processes and the necessary equipment and facilities, which are unchanged across the millennia (See Dineley, M. 2004 ‘Barley, Malt and Ale in the Neolithic’ BAR S1213)
The earliest grain agriculturalists of the British Isles (c4000 BC) were also the megalith and monument builders. Associated with them is the integrated "cultural package" of grain cultivation and processing, the management of domesticated animals and the manufacture of ceramics.
The complex ritual of processing grain, very likely a sacred crop, into malt, malt sugars and ale was an extremely important aspect of this ‘cultural package’.
The skills involved in the construction of megalithic monuments and buildings are acknowledged and investigated by archaeologists. The complexities of animal husbandry are also recognised, as is the craft of making and firing pots. But the skills and particular rituals of the maltster and brewer have been so far neglected in archaeological interpretations of British Neolithic material culture and pottery.
In the British Isles, harvested grain was being made into ale, an intoxicating beverage to be ritually consumed at ceremonial sites from the Neolithic period onwards. The making of ale in Neolithic times was as much a ritual activity as its’ consumption at feasts.
Sacred crops, grain, were grown to make a special and sacred drink, ale.
Ale is made from the grain, usually barley, but wheat and rye can also be malted.
Malting and mashing convert the grain into liquid malt sugars (wort) that can be fermented. Sugars ferment, starch does not.
Flowers, for example meadowsweet or heather, cannot be fermented – they are the flavouring, perhaps adding medicinal or other properties, and they can act as a preservative.
Grooved Ware pottery comes in all sizes, from tiny vessels to huge pots. It was used for a variety of purposes. The larger pots are suitable for fermentation of barley wort into ale or for storage. Grooved ware is found throughout the British Isles, often in association with ceremonial and ritual sites dated to the Neolithic. For example, sherds of Grooved Ware were found in the central hearth at the Stones of Stenness.
At Barnhouse village, situated only half a mile from the stone circle of Stenness, some very finely decorated Grooved Ware was found and it has been recently found in large quantities at the Ness of Brodgar excavations, right by the Ring of Brodgar. This has been interpreted as a ceremonial centre, a temple precinct, perhaps, and a place where ritual and feasting took place. What were they drinking at these feasts?
Grooved Ware sherds representing large pots were found at Durrington Walls, a henge situated just stone’s throw from Woodhenge and a few miles from Stonehenge.
At Balfarg, a ceremonial site by Balbirnie stone circle near Perth, in Scotland, organic residues were noted on sherds from very large Grooved Ware pots. When analysed, these residues were found to be cereal-based and were interpreted as the probable remains of ale. Grooved Ware has been found in Wales, Ireland and the Isle of Man.
Some of the evidence from the British NeolithiC
There is a probable malting floor in Structure Six, improved and enlarged over the years.
Floors have many potential functions.
Careful repair and resurfacing probably indicates a floor surface used for malting. Barley husks were found in Structure Two.
It is difficult to dehusk barley using Stone Age technology; today it is dehusked using steel rollers. However, once barley has been malted and dried it becomes friable and easy to crush.
The husks detach naturally during this process. Malting and crushing are an efficient way of dehusking the grain.
Barley husks found on archaeological sites probably indicate this kind of grain processing.
A Grooved Ware pottery assemblage of a few, very large, pots, and many smaller ones, might represent fermentation and drinking vessels. The large pots were in the buildings interpreted as houses and were static, too large to be moved. Sherds from a great number of Grooved Ware pots, of about one litre in volume, were found in Structure Eight.
Organic residues were identified on Grooved Ware pottery sherds. Among these were barley lipids and "unidentified sugars". (GC/MS analysis by Dr Andy Jones.)
Barley lipids are the product of sparging, that is, washing hot water through a sweet barley mash to extract the wort. Lipids are washed out in the latter stages of sparging. The sugars might indicate processing grain for sugars, or they might be from milk processing. Further analysis would clarify this.
There is a complex drainage system that seems to serve both roof drainage and the removal of liquid waste from certain buildings.
Dr Colin Richards suggests a "liquid product" – what was it? There was a drain around the dresser in Structure Eight, later replaced by a stone trough (pers comm. Colin Richards).
Skara Brae, Orkney
A very large highly decorated Grooved Ware pot was by the fire in House Seven – this could have been a fermentation vessel. It was two feet in diameter and two feet deep, having a volume of up to 30 gallons. Why make pots of this size to be kept by the fire?
Drains, and a mysterious green slime, were identified by Childe in his excavations. The slime was never analysed. It might be the partially decayed moulds that readily grow on the sugars washed from the equipment used for processing grain into ale.
At the Skara Brae Visitor Centre, there is some mention of "beer" made from plants and herbs. Ale or beer is a product of the grain. Flowers and plants cannot be fermented, but are useful for flavourings and preservation.
Durrington Walls, England
Caried pig teeth have been found at the enormous henge of Durrington walls, another major Neolithic ceremonial site associated with ritual, ceremony, Grooved Ware and feasting. This decay on the pig teeth has been ascribed to feeding the pigs on honey, in order to make honey roast ham, according to some archaeologists. This is an unlikely explanation.
We believe that the pigs were fed on the slightly sweet residual spent grain, or draff, from the mashing process, as is done today. The practice of feeding spent grain, a waste product from brewing, to animals is well attested throughout the centuries.
See my paper on spent grain for pictures and more details. Click here to access.
There is more evidence for malting, mashing and brewing in the Neolithic, for example, carbonised grain from Balbridie Timber hall has the embryos missing. This is, very likely, malt. I have a paper about to be published about this and it is of particular interest, given the recent finds of carbonised grain at the early neolithic site on Wyre.