Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Durrington Maltsters

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I am delighted to welcome Merryn Dineley to the blog. She is an archaeologist with an interest in traditional brewing and malting, and is one a small group of people actively researching the archaeology of brewing and attempting to give beer back its rightful place in our early heritage.

 2013 Introduction
Malted bere barley
This article was first published in British Archaeology in January 2008. It was not put on-line at the time. I think it is a good time to revive it, given the proposed re-creation of some of the buildings excavated at Durrington Walls by The Ancient Technology Centre and English Heritage.

Obviously, it needs to be updated a little ... there is a reference to a new and potentially exciting little excavation beside the Ring of Brodgar, Orkney. I think people now know this site as the Ness of Brodgar, a huge Neolithic ceremonial and feasting site being excavated by Nick Card and his team of archaeologists from the Orkney College and ORCA.

Unmalted barley
Also on Orkney, in the last few years, an early Neolithic site on the small island of Wyre has been discovered and excavated by Antonia Thomas and Dan Lee, both of the Orkney College. Here, rectangular timber buildings have been uncovered, one of them with tens of thousands of carbonised grains preserved on an earthen floor. There is also possible Grooved Ware pottery and thousands of fire cracked rocks have been found. Fire cracked rocks are ideal for heating water to the correct temperature for the mash pot.

The site on Wyre has potential evidence for the malting of grain and the brewing of ale, but we need to wait for the full excavation and archaeobotanical reports to be published [Current Archaeology 268]. Interestingly, it happens to be a stone's throw from Cubbie Roo's Castle, a 12th Century Viking stronghold. Here, Graham Dineley and I recently identified the brew house, complete with a surviving mash oven, drains and stone shelves for the ale vats.

Crushed malted barley
Back to the Neolithic, and an interesting 'house' was excavated at Horton by Wessex Archaeology in 2007 [see here | and here]. The building was radiocarbon dated to c.3700 BC. Around 5000 years old, this rectangular timber building was similar to many that have been excavated elsewhere in the British Isles. Beside the building, there is an unusual feature. There are the remains of a rectangular pit, perhaps once lined with wood, which contained a heap of reddened, fire cracked stones. I cannot find any discussion of this feature [photo]. It looks to me like the remains of a wooden trough, with hot stones used to heat the contents. It could have been used successfully as a mash tun, similar to the process used in the ‘fulacht fiadh’ experiment [YouTube | Facebook].

The Durrington Maltsters                             by Merryn Dineley

Excavations at Durrington Walls, the enormous Neolithic henge 3km north-east of Stonehenge, revealed extensive evidence of feasting around 2500BC (News, British Archaeology, Nov/Dec 2006). Pots were smashed, meat was roasted and joints of beef and pork were half eaten, then thrown away. Evidence of timber buildings, described as being similar in design to those of the Orcadian Neolithic, was discovered.

Durrington Walls - P25 would hold about 8 gallons.
Some of these buildings have been interpreted as cult houses, perhaps used for special rituals, their clay floors having been kept scrupulously clean. Other buildings were the scenes of feasting, with food debris and a tremendous mess made by the revellers. Professor Mike Parker Pearson, of Sheffield University and the Stonehenge Riverside Project, has described an enormous feasting assemblage, with conspicuous consumption and great celebrations at this Late Neolithic site.

The first major excavation at Durrington Walls was in the 1960s, by Geoffrey Wainwright and others. He also thought that important ceremonial and ritual activity took place there, with special or ritual uses for the vast amounts of large, highly decorated Grooved Ware vessels. It seems strange that in reports and discussions of the recent excavations by the Stonehenge Riverside Project, the function and possible contents of the pottery has not been discussed.

Some years ago I suggested that the malting of grain and the brewing of ale were important aspects of domestic and ritual life in Neolithic Britain, and that very large Grooved Ware buckets were suitable for the fermentation of barley wort into ale (British Archaeology November 1996). Wainwright's and Parker Pearson's interpretations of feasting, ritual and ceremony at Durrington Walls seem to support the idea of processing grain into malt to make ale rather than into flour for bread.

The crucial and necessary ingredient for ale is malt. The scrupulously clean clay floors would have been suitable as malting floors and, with easy access to the river and a suitable ceramic assemblage, the crushed malt could have been steeped, then mashed in ceramic bowls and fermented in the large bucket shaped pots. Given the difficulty of transporting large quantities of liquid in heavy pots, the ale was probably made on site. Malted grain is much easier to transport than ale.

The crushed malt was mixed with water, then placed on hot ashes in the hearth.
Some may consider this idea to be speculative. But the suggestion is based upon knowledge and experience of the malting and brewing processes, as well as an understanding of the practicalities and the science of malting and brewing.

There is so much more to grain processing than the daily grind of grain. Assumptions that, in the Neolithic, grain was ground into flour to make bread or was used for porridge or gruel do not stand up to scrutiny.

Unmalted grain has a hard husk, and is almost impossible to grind on a saddle quern.
Malted grain is soft, friable and easily crushed, producing copious fine flour as well as chaff. Malting is the easiest way of dehusking grain; a simple, basic process, rarely discussed in the context of Neolithic agricultural practices and food preparation techniques. The crafts of the maltster and the brewer have been neglected in interpretations of Neolithic domestic and ritual sites.

Malt is partially germinated grain. Upon germination, enzymes begin to convert grain starch into sugars. All grains can be malted, although barley is the most suitable. Bere, the barley probably grown in Neolithic Britain, is the only kind that can be used for both baking and malting. Wheat is the best grain for bread because of the high gluten content. Oats are most useful for making porridge. Different grains are used for different products.

In my Master's thesis, I argued that the transformation of grain into malt and ale is an ancient biotechnology, unchanged across the millennia and originating in the Neolithic Near East. Malting was the first technique of grain processing discovered and it played a major role in the origin of grain agriculture over 10,000 years ago. This new technology of grain processing and cultivation spread across Europe, reaching the British Isles around 6000 years ago.

The 'saccharification' or 'mashing' process. Mashing, for a brewer, is when you gently heat the crushed malt with hot water so that the enzymes in the malt re activate and continue the job of converting grain starch into malt sugars.
Crushed malt is mashed to make sugars. Malt is the prime ingredient for ale although the mash and wort, the dark brown, sweet liquid produced from the mash, can be consumed in other ways. Wort is rich in B vitamins and can be mixed with milk to make a nutritious malted drink, or it can be fermented into ale. Malting, mashing and brewing can be described as ritual grain processing activities. Specific processes, conditions and activities are necessary for the successful manufacture of the desired products.

Making sugars and ale from malt requires copious water, for brewing and for the washing of pots and equipment, which inevitably become sticky. Access to water and drains are essential. Stone built drainage systems have been found at several Orcadian Neolithic sites, for example, at Skara Brae, Barnhouse and also at Rinyo.

Excavations at the Neolithic site close by the Ring of Brodgar have uncovered a substantial drain and also a building very similar to House 2 at Barnhouse. (i.e. the Ness of Brodgar where, since 2007 when this article was written, evidence has been found of feasting on a huge scale, the biggest stone buildings of the Neolithic in the British Isles and more huge stone drains. Also lots of Grooved Ware pots, varying in size from tiny "paint pots" to drinking vessels and huge bucket shaped, highly decorated pots).

Barnhouse, excavated by Prof. Colin Richards and his team during the 1980s, has provided me with some of the most convincing evidence for malting, mashing and brewing in Neolithic Britain. Barley husks and hearths were found in House 2. There is a network of stone lined drains. Richards refers to an unidentified “liquid product” that may have been stored on the dressers (Dwelling Among the Monuments, McDonald Institute 2005). I believe that this could have been barley ale, probably a sacred drink in the Neolithic.

Residues including animal fats, barley lipids and, for me, an intriguing "sugar of unidentified class” were identified in the fabric of some of the Barnhouse Grooved Ware sherds. Dr Andrew Jones used the technique of gas chromatography and mass spectrometry.

The animal fats discovered might indicate either the contents of the vessel, or they may have been used as a sealant for the pot. This is an explanation that makes good sense. I have used pots, sealed with animal fats.

Barley lipids are very good evidence for the wet processing of malt for sugars and ale, as they are liberated from the grain husk by sparging, that is, by washing liquid malt sugars from the mash using hot water. It is unlikely, if not impossible, for barley lipids to migrate into the fabric of pottery vessels by dry storage. The unidentified sugar is intriguing, originating from either malt or milk, and worthy of further investigation.

Other evidence from Barnhouse and the Ness of Brodgar includes the pottery assemblage, suitable for the manufacture and consumption of ale. Few very large vessels were represented and there were many drinking vessels. Building 8 had a clay floor surrounding it and other buildings, such as House 6, might provide the evidence of a well-repaired and well-kept malting floor.

Malting and brewing were a part of a complex and, as yet, only partially understood ritual and domestic way of life in the Neolithic. The crafts have been neglected in interpretations of these early agricultural communities, and is about time to acknowledge the skills of the maltster and the brewer in Neolithic Britain.

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