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Ancient cups reveal chemical evidence of beer

An archaeological team excavating a 3,500-year-old site in Mesopotamia, which is now modern-day Iraq, has unearthed an ancient drinking vessel that has revealed some of the earliest known chemical evidence of beer.

Some of the ancient pottery unearthed, dating back 3,500 years

The ceramic drinking cups were excavated from Khani Masi, where an international team, led by Dr Claudia Glatz (University of Glasgow) and Professor Jesse Casana (Dartmouth College, USA) have been carrying out large-scale excavations since 2016 as part of the Sirwan Regional Project.

Traditionally, scholars have assumed that beer in Mesopotamia was consumed communally from large jars using long, bendy straws. However, the paper entitled Revealing invisible brews: A new approach to the chemical identification of ancient beer, and published in The Journal of Archaeological Science, says: “Our analytical results also allow us, for the first time and with confidence, to ascribe a diverse range of drinking equipment to the consumption of beers and in so doing track a significant transformation in Mesopotamian drinking practices.”

The new research shows that by 1400 BC beer drinking had become an individual experience using drinking cups and goblets ranging in size from a modern-day equivalent of a small glass of wine up to just over a pint glass of beer.

For this research, the Glasgow academics developed a new analytical method that has allowed them for the first time to chemically identify beer in drinking vessels, using gas chromatography – a method also applied in the cork industry to detect TCA.

Chemical compounds identified indicated that a barley-based fermented drink had been drunk from numerous pottery vessels unearthed at the Bronze Age Site of Khani Masi located in the Upper Diyala River valley of north-eastern Iraq.

Dr Claudia Glatz, a senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Glasgow, said: “Our results present a significant advance in the study of ancient Near Eastern beer brewing and consumption practices. They also provide us with unprecedented new insights into Mesopotamia’s cultural relationships with the Upper Diyala River valley, a strategic communication corridor between Mesopotamia and the Zagros mountains that formed part of the later Silk Roads and that we have only recently begun to explore systematically.”

The academics have now laid out a protocol for field-based sampling of vessels for archaeologists.

An aerial view of Khani Masi
Excavations in progress at Khani Masi

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