Why is there a brewery in the desert?

Egyptian brewery: There is always a lot of excitement when an ancient brewing story makes the papers. The national press love talking about our ancestors making booze. Today the papers tell that what might be the oldest known beer factory site that has been excavated in Egypt. I have no idea why every national journalist has forgotten the word ‘brewery’. They are all calling it specifically a ‘beer factory’ so that must have been what is in the press release.

It is a wonderful site in Egypt called Abydos where the discovery has been made. This is located in Upper Egypt and was where many of Egypt’s earliest kings were buried. Along with the royal tombs it was also a cult centre to the god Osiris, the god of the Underworld. It was probably Ancient Egypt’s most important religious centre.

This discovery is of material that dates back to either the late predynastic or perhaps First Dynasty period. It dates to somewhere around 3000 BC (or BCE – before common era – if you prefer). I was hugely fortunate to work with some beautiful objects from tombs at Abydos that sit in the Leicester collection when I was Senior Curator of the museums there.

Revisiting Peet’s 1912 Excavation: Kiln to Egyptian brewery

The area was first examined by legendary British archaeologist T E Peet in 1912. He discovered the first non-royal burials at Abydos during that season. Two years ago archaeologists made the decision to revisit the area with modern eyes and modern techniques. Peet found some burned material and he thought these features could perhaps be kilns used for drying grain. Of course we have a more comprehensive knowledge of the site and its various social and economic as well as religious functions. That meant the team from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts and Princeton University knew immediately that the area was actually a large brewery.

There are two parallel rows of units in Peet’s Cemetery D. They are huge – some 20 metres by 2.5 metres. They contain parallel rows of pottery basins used to heat water and grain as part of the brewing process. The beer would have been used sacrificially in the royal rituals that took place on the site.

This is the start of our understanding of the brewing processes that took place in Abydos and what they meant. This is only the second season of excavation. These projects tend to be really long term, so more excavation and huge amounts of analysis will take place, looking not just at the features – the structures and changes in the soil – but also the objects that have been found, like beautiful beer jars.

Egyptian model brewery
Image from the British /museum’s History in 100 Objects website – resouces for download at http://www.teachinghistory100.org/

Ancient Brewing in archaeology

One of my favourite objects in the Leicester Egyptian collection was a model brewery. Egyptians would take all the things they needed in the afterlife with them. These sorts of models would symbolically provide for the deceased in perpetuity. You would also see things like bakeries modelled. As well as being beautiful, they also provide an incredibly detailed snapshot into how these mundane types of activities were performed by the Ancient Egyptians.

So that’s a lovely story to usher in the weekend!

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