A Toast to Our Fermented Past: Case Studies in the Experimental Archaeology of Alcoholic Beverages


Author with Neolithic sickle replica during the Ale Through The Ages Lecture Series

By: Kevin M. Cullen

 Archaeologists and historians are constantly in pursuit of the tangible human past, whether it is in the form of material culture or primary written sources.  This direct evidence of the past can still leave us disconnected from the full context in which the technology or writings were employed.  Therefore, one exciting field of research is experimental archaeology, in which the past literally comes alive though the step-by-step recreation process of an ancient technology, method, or even recipe. Thus, in an effort to make that intangible past more meaningful for the general public, in 2008 I began a brewing series in Milwaukee called Ale Through The Ages at Discovery World a nonprofit cultural institution located on the shores of Lake Michigan.  Relying on published data of ancient fermented beverages (Patrick McGovern, Delwan Samuel, Jeremy Geller, etc.), independent research, and the methods of experimental archaeology, to date we have recreated over thirty ancient and traditional fermented beverages from around the world.  More than a thousand people have attended these brewing programs, where participants are treated to a geographical, archaeological, botanical, chemical, and cultural overview of the recipe being recreated.  People then add the necessary ingredients to the brew at designated times and return two or so weeks later for bottling and sampling. Continue reading

Biomolecular Archaeology & the Westward Spread of Wine

From the Penn Museum


Patrick McGovern is the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia. Here he is pictured holding a jar sherd from Jiahu, China, dated to about 9,000 years ago. This sherd and another twelve tested positive for a Neolithic mixed fermented beverage, the earliest chemical evidence for an alcoholic beverage from anywhere in the world. Photo: Penn Museum.

France is renowned the world over as a leader in the crafts of viticulture and winemaking—but the beginnings of French viniculture have been largely unknown, until now.

Imported ancient Etruscan amphoras and a limestone press platform, discovered at the ancient port site of Lattara in southern France, have provided the earliest known biomolecular archaeological evidence of grape wine and winemaking—and point to the beginnings of a Celtic or Gallic vinicultural industry in France circa 500-400 BCE. Details of the discovery are published as “The Beginning of Viniculture in France” in the June 3, 2013 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  Dr. Patrick McGovern, Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and author of Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture (Princeton University Press, 2006) is the lead author on the paper, which was researched and written in collaboration with colleagues from France and the United States. Continue reading

Ancient Tsunamis and their Modern Significance

Ōtsuchi, Iwate, Japan (March 18, 2011). An aerial view of damage to Ōtsuchi, Japan, a week after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated the area. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Dylan McCord/Released)

An aerial view of damage to Ōtsuchi, Japan, a week after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated the area.

By: Beverly Goodman

On March 11, 2011, the word “tsunami” went from being an esoteric term to a household word. The world’s television screens were filled with images of destruction and carnage when massive waves generated by an offshore earthquake devastated large portions of northeastern Japan. Waves reaching as high as 40 meters resulted in more than 19,000 people either killed or missing, almost one million damaged or destroyed buildings, and $230 billion in damages. To make matters worse, the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant was severely damaged, causing a meltdown and explosions that released radioactive contamination into the air and water. According to Forbes, more than 315,000 people remain displaced today.

Just two years after this catastrophe, we are still asking whether any of the devastation could have been prevented. Should houses have been built differently? Should nuclear plants have been sited differently? How safe is it to live near any coast? In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, such questions are even more pressing for Americans living on the east coast. While archaeology cannot answer all of these questions, it can contribute to our understanding of tsunamis. In turn, the geological study of tsunamis helps us understand important archaeological phenomena in the eastern Mediterranean. Continue reading

Team Discovers Lost Color on the Arch of Titus’ Menorah

Procession on the Arch of Titus. Image courtesy of Dr. Steven Fine.

From June 5 to 7, 2012 an international team of scholars led by the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies in partnership with the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma undertook a pilot study of the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum, the ancient civic center of Rome, Italy. The focus of attention was the Menorah panel and the relief showing the deification of Titus at the apex of the arch. Continue reading