Archive for the ‘Ancient Mesopotamia’ Category
In a recent dig in Israel, archaeologists working on a large winepress from 500 A.D. made a surprising and delightful discovery. They found a church-shaped lamp that appears to be an actual model of a Byzantine-era church, about the size of a loaf of bread.
The find indicates that the owner of the winepress was likely a Christian, as the lantern has patterns on the roof and walls that would have shone flickering crosses of candlelight onto the walls of a darkened room. On one side of the lantern is an opening, just large enough for an oil lamp.
Finding a miniature church is rare, according to the librarian for Byzantine studies at Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks research center. However, it’s not unusual to find 2D renderings of churches in mosaics from the period.
As for the winepress, the site worked on by archaeologists revealed six compartments for fermentation, along with a treading floor for a screw press, two collecting pits, and a setting vat. These were spread along over 84 square meters of space!
The location of the ancient winepress and the lantern discovery is near Hamai Yoav, along what used to be known as the ancient road to Ashkelon’s port, where wine was exported to places like North Africa and Europe.
Part 2 of this series introduced Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of beer, and the hymn of praise dedicated to her. But when was this hymn written, and what relevance did beer actually have in the everyday life of the Sumerians?
It’s thought that the hymn was written around 1800 BC, though it may be much older—brewing evidence dates as far back as 3500/3100 BC at a Sumerian settlement called Godin Tepe, which is one of the locations where archaeologists found chemical traces of beer inside pieces of a broken pottery jar (as mentioned in Part 1).
Godin Tepe was an important stop for trade along the Silk Road trade route, and another Sumerian city called Ebla is where many of the clay tablets containing administrative lists of beer-making ingredients were found. The tablets date from 2500 BC, and show that Ebla was brewing a hearty selection of beers at its height. They used fresh water and boiled it, making beer a healthier (and safer) drink than water, which could be contaminated by animal or human waste.
Because it contained plenty of nutrients, every indication is given in the tablets that beer was a staple of the Sumerian diet—even laborers were given beer as part of their rations when on the job, and was consumed with… a straw.
Yes, a straw. While that may be a ludicrous concept to the modern beer-drinker, this Babylonian invention helped the beer drinker to avoid ending up with the bitter brewing residue in his mouth. These straws were made of metal, bronze, or gold, and were rather long—one on display at the Oriental Institute Museum in Chicago is around 40” long.
And while this ancient beer was traditionally brewed by women on a daily basis in the home, it didn’t take long for beer to turn commercial—a tablet from 2050 BC called The Alulu Tablet (Ur) contains an ancient receipt for beer delivery by the brewer named Alulu.
Although most people today are more familiar with the concept of singing a rousing shanty over a tankard of ale—or stepping up to the karaoke machine after a few too many Coronas—the concept of singing and drinking being intertwined has been around for thousands of years.
In fact, as mentioned in Part 1 of this series, the Ancient Sumerians had their very own hymn dedicated to a special deity, the Goddess of Beer. “A hymn to Ninkasi” is a poem that describes the goddess’ recipe and process for making beer, and praises her for doing things like putting piles of grain in order, and setting up the fermenting vat.
In Sumerian mythology, Ninkasi is the daughter of Enki and Queen Ninti, and is one of eight children created to heal her father’s wounds. Along with being considered the goddess of beer, she was made “to satisfy desire” and “sate the heart”… probably through the beer-making process, which she performed daily.
Too bad for the Sumerians, though—Ninkasi’s beer was made for the other gods, who apparently liked to get their drink on before ruling for the day. Or maybe they drank on the job, considering Sumer’s history… but regardless of the technical details, clearly the Sumerians had a very high regard for their beer.
Here are a few select phrases from “A Hymn to Ninkasi”, but you can read several versions of the full translation here or here.
“Born of the flowing water (…)
Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag,”
“You are the one who handles the dough, [and] with a big shovel, Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics,”
“Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes the bappir in the oven, Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,”
“Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats,”
“Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat, It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.”
For decades, it was thought that the ancient Sumerians were one of the earliest people groups who brewed their own alcoholic beer—ancient writings and traces on ancient vessels revealed that these Mesopotamian people loved their fermented cereal juice… but no one has been quite sure how they actually made it.
But, historian of science and cuneiform scholar Peter Damerow wanted to better understand how the Sumerians brewed their beer, so he decided to review all the relevant finds about ancient beer production (and consumption!), including cuneiform tablets from 4,000 years ago, to see what he could learn.
Unfortunately, he didn’t learn a whole lot. The legacy of Mesopotamia’s administrative texts didn’t include the kinds of clues needed to be able to understand Sumerian brewing techniques… and left Damerow with the conclusion that the Sumerian brew might not actually have been beer at all.
In his study published in November, in the Cuneiform Digital Library Journal, Damerow wrote: “Given our limited knowledge about the Sumerian brewing processes, we cannot say for sure whether their end product even contained alcohol.”
The texts Damerow studied definitely showed the right products for the job, though—deliveries of emmer wheat, barley, and malt, but almost nothing on the actual brewing process itself. But why would the Sumerians have written the recipe down, other historians protest, because the audience the texts were made for would have already been familiar with the brewing process. Writing it down would have taken up valuable shelf space, so to speak.
It also doesn’t help that the Sumerian bureaucrats that created the administrative texts used different systems of measuring, recording, and calculating, depending on the objects they were counting or measuring. And where the recording was being done. And in what time period!
And even an analysis of the “Hymn of Ninkasi”—a hymn that glorifies beer brewing—didn’t reveal anything new, or talk about how the brewing was done.
Back in 2006, there was research done that attempted to reconstruct the ancient beer brewing process, but Damerow’s review of that study led him to conclude that it only showed how modern brewing methods can create beer under similar conditions in a 13th-century settlement called Tall Bazi in Syria, and may not be representative of other locations in Mesopotamia (it was a big place!).
So, the old theory about Sumerian brewers crumbling flat bread into their mash to create “bappir” (“beer bread” in Sumerian) may not be true after all.
The good news is, it means we now know the Sumerians probably didn’t have to appoint a Designated Cart Driver after every social event…
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