Potent Potables of the Past: Beer and Brewing in Mesopotamia

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By: Tate Paulette and Michael Fisher

In ancient Mesopotamia, people knew how to appreciate a good beer. They appreciated their beer often and often in large quantities. They sang songs and wrote poetry about beer. Sometimes they got drunk and threw caution to the wind.

Beer was a gift from the gods, a marker of civilization, a dietary staple, a social lubricant, and a ritual necessity. It was produced on a massive scale and was consumed on a daily basis by people across the socio-economic spectrum. It was indeed “liquid bread,” a fundamental source of sustenance. But what gave beer its distinctive power and appeal was its inebriating effects.

Cylinder seal (left) and modern rolling (right) showing the consumption of beer through long, reed straws. Early Dynastic period (c. 2600–2350 BCE). Khafajeh, Iraq. (Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago)

Map of Mesopotamia showing sites mentioned in the text. (Base map courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago)

Beer in Mesopotamia

The earliest solid evidence for beer in Mesopotamia dates to the later part of the fourth millennium BCE (the Uruk period). Our first glimpses of Mesopotamian beer, therefore, appear during the period of rapid and radical change that produced the world’s first cities and states and the world’s first writing. Indeed, in the earliest “proto-cuneiform” documents, beer was already being produced and distributed in large quantities.

Excavations at the Uruk-period site of Godin Tepe in western Iran have also uncovered traces of calcium oxalate or “beerstone” within ceramic vessels. As things currently stand, though, we know next to nothing about the prehistory of beer in the region, that is, about the origins and development of beer during preceding periods. Given the scale and sophistication of brewing activity during the Uruk period, we can expect that future work will push beer’s backstory thousands of years further into the past.

Brewing beer in Mesopotamia

What exactly was Mesopotamian beer? Known as kaš in Sumerian or šikaru in Akkadian, it was a barley-based fermented beverage, typically brewed using two key ingredients: malted barley and a special kind of barley bread (or a looser barley product) called bappir. Many beers also included emmer wheat, date syrup, and other flavorings, but there is no evidence for the use of hops. Although the beers were sometimes referred to as “filtered” or “strained,” most probably included a significant amount of solid matter. Cuneiform documents refer to a number of different types of beer. In the earliest documents (c. 3000 BCE), nine different types are mentioned but are difficult to translate. During the Early Dynastic period (c. 2500 BCE), at least five types were recognized: golden, dark, sweet dark, red, and strained. By the Ur III period (c. 2100 BCE), beer was being categorized primarily in terms of its quality or strength: ordinary, good, and very good – or, perhaps, ordinary, strong, and very strong.

Beer appears on thousands of cuneiform tablets, most produced by scribes working for powerful palace and temple institutions. Most of these tablets are economic documents, including delivery orders, receipts, monthly accounts, production estimates, and ration lists.

Cuneiform tablets recording the disbursement of beer. Akkadian period (c. 2350–2150 BCE). Bismaya, Iraq. (Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago)

Through the eyes of the institutional administrator, however, brewing was a black box. The details of the process mattered little, as long as inputs and outputs could be measured, monitored, and recorded. Only rarely do administrative texts have anything explicit to say about how the beer was actually made. They do, however, provide invaluable information about brewing ingredients, the organization of production, and the distribution of beer to consumers. The best description of the brewing process itself can be found in a literary document, the famous Hymn to Ninkasi, goddess of beer. Although it is definitely not a set of instructions for the brewing of beer, this poem or song appears to include a step-by-step, if enigmatic, description of the brewing process.

Archaeologists have uncovered few physical traces of large-scale, institutional breweries in Mesopotamia. The best candidate is a building excavated at the site of Tell al-Hiba (ancient Lagash) in southern Iraq, dating to the Early Dynastic III period (c. 2600–2350 BCE). This building included a variety of vats, fireplaces, and ovens and, fortuitously, a cuneiform tablet that mentions the é-lunga (Sumerian for “brewery”). Thanks to scattered references in the written record, we know that beer was also brewed on the household level, and recent excavations at Tell Bazi in north-central Syria have provided vivid confirmation. Among approximately 50 houses excavated at the site, dating to the Late Bronze Age (c. 1400–1200 BCE), many included a standardized set of brewing vessels containing residue evidence for beer. The excavators argue that nearly every household was producing its own beer or, in some cases, wine.

There have been a number of efforts to recreate Mesopotamian beer. In the late 1980s, for example, the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute teamed up with Anchor Brewing Company to brew a beer called “Ninkasi,” inspired by the Hymn to Ninkasi but brewed using modern equipment. More recently, the excavators of Tell Bazi have used replica ceramic vessels to recreate the beers once brewed at the site. Since 2012, we have also been involved in a collaborative brewing effort, joining the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago with Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland, Ohio. Drawing on written and archaeological evidence, we have done our best to employ authentic ingredients, equipment, and techniques – resulting in a beer that we call “Enkibru,” always tasted alongside “Gilgamash,” a companion beer brewed with the same ingredients but modern brewing equipment.

Experimental brewing of Mesopotamian beer using replica ceramic vessels. Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago and Great Lakes Brewing Co.

Tasting “Enkibru” at Great Lakes Brewing Co. in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo: Kathryn Grossman)

Stone plaque with a banquet scene (top register) showing seated individuals drinking a beverage from cups. Early Dynastic period (c. 2600–2350 BCE). Khafajeh, Iraq. (Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago)

Tasting “Enkibru” at Great Lakes Brewing Co. in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo: Kathryn Grossman)

Drinking beer in Mesopotamia

Beer was consumed in a wide variety of contexts in Mesopotamia – at feasts, festivals, and ritual ceremonies, for example, but also at home, on the job, and in neighborhood taverns. It was often consumed from a communal vessel through long, reed straws, as shown in numerous artistic depictions; another common image shows a woman drinking beer from a vessel through a straw during sex. The ubiquitous “banquet scenes” that show seated individuals drinking from cups also suggest that beer (or, alternatively, wine) may sometimes have been consumed from cups.

What kind of effects did beer produce? There is significant disagreement about the alcohol content of Mesopotamian beer. Some argue that this “beer” was not really beer at all but a low alcohol (or alcohol-free) barley beverage analogous to modern kvass, a fermented drink made from rye bread. While it is possible that the Sumerian and Akkadian terms that we translate as “beer” encompassed a broader semantic range than our own term, we see no reason to ignore the fact that in Mesopotamian literature the consumption of beer often led to intoxication. Beer made people happy; it lightened their mood; it muddled their senses; and sometimes it made them angry and belligerent.

As in many (perhaps most) other societies, both past and present, beer occupied an ambiguous position in the Mesopotamian social world. It was consumed and enjoyed by many people on a regular basis, but there was also a fine line between enjoyment and overindulgence, between acceptable and unacceptable levels of inebriation. The tavern, in particular, provided a distinct space within which this line (and others) could be crossed. The very existence of this conflicted stance toward beer and its potential effects provides some indication of the power of beer and its unique capacity to transform individual people, groups of people, places, and occasions. Over the past few decades, numerous studies have highlighted this dynamic dimension of alcoholic beverages, placing them at the center of social, political, and economic life in societies widely separated in space and time. It is time to follow suit and give beer its proper place in ancient Mesopotamia – treating it as an active and potentially transformative force, whose potency was fundamentally grounded in its inebriating effects.

Tate Paulette is Postdoctoral Fellow in Archaeology at Brown University. Michael Fisher is a graduate student at the University of Chicago.

 

For further reading

 

Civil, M. 1964. A hymn to the beer goddess and a drinking song. In Studies presented to A. Leo Oppenheim, eds. R. D. Biggs and J. A. Brinkman, 67–89. Chicago: Oriental Institute.

Damerow, Peter. 2012. Sumerian beer: The origins of brewing technology in ancient Mesopotamia. Cuneiform Digital Library Journal 2012, no. 2: 1–20.

Katz, Solomon H., and Fritz Maytag. 1991. Brewing an ancient beer. Archaeology July/August 1991: 24–33.

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2 Comments for : Potent Potables of the Past: Beer and Brewing in Mesopotamia
  1. Pingback: Weekly Roundup of Archaeology, History and Historical Fiction April 22-28 | Judith Starkston

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