Sunday, January 16, 2011

Drunken Celts and the Archaeology of Iron Age Beer

Analysis of numerous barley grains from the Iron Age Celtic site of Eberdingen-Hochdorf, which dates to around 500 BC, suggests that they were waste from brewing. Archaeobotanist Hans-Peter Stika
bases that conclusion on a close resemblance of the ancient grains to barley malt that he made by reproducing several methods that Iron Age folk might have used. He also compared the ancient grains to malt produced in modern facilities. Upon confirming the presence of malt at the Celtic site, Stika reconstructed malt-making techniques there to determine how they must have affected beer taste. . . .

At the Celtic site, barley was soaked in the specially constructed ditches until it sprouted, Stika proposes. Grains were then dried by lighting fires at the ends of the ditches, giving the malt a smoky taste and a darkened color. Lactic acid bacteria stimulated by slow drying of soaked grains, a well-known phenomenon, added sourness to the brew.

Unlike modern beers that are flavored with flowers of the hop plant, the Eberdingen-Hochdorf brew probably contained spices such as mugwort, carrot seeds or henbane, in Stika’s opinion. Beer makers are known to have used these additives by medieval times. Excavations at the Celtic site have yielded a few seeds of henbane, a plant that also makes beer more intoxicating.

That detail about flavoring with henbane is intriguing, since henbane is a powerful psychoactive drug, regularly mentioned as one of the ingredients in Renaissance witch's salves. One Elizabethan herbalist wrote:
The leaves, the seeds and the juice, when taken internally cause an unquiet sleep, like unto the sleep of drunkenness, which continueth long and is deadly to the patient.
If it be used either in sallet or in pottage, then doth it bring frenzie, and whoso useth more than four leaves shall be in danger to sleepe without waking.
This may perhaps explain the extreme behavior of drunken Celts, as noted by Greek and Roman historians.

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