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Alcohol and Archaeology

A History of Alcohol


Wine Cellar at Cojuşna Winery, Moldova

Wine Cellar at Cojuşna Winery, Moldova

Guttorm Flatabø

Alcohol is the most widely used psychoactive (behavior-, mood- and mind-altering) agent in the world, and it should come as no surprise that it is also the earliest such substance used, perhaps even used by our hominin ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago. The product of a sugar fermentation process (called glycolysis), alcohol is created when yeast interacts with sugar. Glycolysis is one of the most ancient of processes on our planet, and it is part of the natural metabolic breakdown of rotting fruit and its conversion into energy. Some primates, insects and birds use alcohol, and some of them are known to occasionally gorge on the energy-rich liquid--a behavior known as binging in humans.

Alcohol was used prehistorically in all corners of the world: only parts of Pacific North America didn't have some indigenous form of alcohol before European contact. The use of alcohol is prohibited by several modern major religions, including some sects of Christianity, Buddhism and Islam; that was not always the case. Tales of the earliest forms of Christianity and Buddhism include drinking alcohol as a part of life. The Koran includes an explicit prohibition of alcohol use: yet as Islam flourished during the 7th-8th centuries AD, the Bacchic poets of Arabia, like the writers of the Song of Solomon in the Bible, wrote of the worldly pleasures of wine, among other things.

Alcohol's Roots

The creation of wineries and breweries, as both home-based and for mass production, involves the economic processes of a society. How the manufacture of alcoholic beverages impacts the economies and societies of the pars is part and parcel of the basics of archaeological and anthropological research. Alcohol is associated with feasts conducted for hospitality, ritual, the establishment of authority and social indebtedness. How people obtain social rank in a society, and maintain it after they have achieved it, is often tied to feasting, and alcohol served to support those aims.

Archaeologists find alcohol use interesting for many reasons not necessarily associated with the economics of making, serving and drinking the beverages. Depending on the role of alcohol in a given society, the beverages were (and are, for that matter) often associated with rules of permissible behavior which vary with gender, class, religion, ethnicity and family. Women were often the brewers, which gave them a source of economic power and independence; but they were also most often forbidden to drink, or had tighter restrictions on their drinking than their male counterparts. In some societies there were rules which led to the segregation of licit drinking into separate facilities (bars and taverns); rules about how and when you drank and how much; and what signs of drunkenness were acceptable and which were not.

Most alcoholic beverages will spoil within a few days after fermentation: beer was like that until hops were added in the 9th century AD. Thus, the production of most alcoholic beverages was done in close proximity to where it would be consumed. Wine was the major prehistoric exception: it could be stored in amphorae for years. As a stable resource, wine could be and was traded throughout the Mediterranean and over vast distances. As a result, wine was a fundamental aspect of Mediterranean societies including Greece, Rome, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Iron Age Europe.

Tapping into the Unknown

Perhaps of most importance, many religions used alcohol as a way to tap into the deep subconscious. Tapping into the subconscious, sometimes called altered states of consciousness, is what all religions aspire to, and all humans reach for, to reach an understanding of human existence by peeling off the layers of the day-to-day. It doesn't take alcohol or any other psychoactive drugs to get there: altered states can be achieved by physical exercise, fasting or meditation. But alcohol was definitely one of the ways used by our shamanic ancestors to escape the mundane and learn about the larger spiritual world (pun intended).

Archaeological evidence for the use of alcohol includes drinking paraphernalia, such as cups and bowls and vats; brewing and fermentation workshops; bars and taverns; historical texts describing recipes; and art work such as ceramic pot decoration and sculptures and paintings illustrating drinking. Residue analysis, including a wide range of chemical analyses of the sometimes microscopic amounts of organic remains in those cups and bowls and vats, has led researchers to identify the contents and, in some cases, to the reconstruction of ancient brews.

Sources and Further Information

Anderson P. 2006. Global use of alcohol, drugs and tobacco. Drug and Alcohol Review 25(6):489-502.

Dietler M. 2006. Alcohol: Anthropological/Archaeological Perspectives. Annual Review of Anthropology 35(1):229-249.

McGovern PE. 2009. Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Beer, Wine and Other Alcoholic Beverages. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Meussdoerffer FG. 2009. A Comprehensive History of Beer Brewing. Handbook of Brewing: Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA. p 1-42.

Meussdoerffer FG. 2011. Beer and Beer Culture in Germany. In: Schiefenhovel W, and Macbeth H, editors. Liquid Bread: Beer and Brewing in Cross-Cultural Perspective. New York: Bergahn. p 63-70.

Stika H-P. 2011. Beer in Prehistoric Europe. In: Schiefenhovel W, and Macbeth H, editors. Liquid Bread: Beer and Brewing in Cross-Cultural Perspective. New York: Berghahn Books. p 55-62.

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