The Penn Museum’s Biomolecular Archaeology Lab is not a good place to come for a cup of coffee. For one thing, there’s the labyrinth. The jumble of narrow hallways, unsigned doors, and partial-story stairwells leading to McGovern’s headquarters would flummox a hedgerow-maze architect. But the main drawback is the scores of glass bottles with lables like ceric ammonium and potassium persulfate and pyrogallic acid that rattle softly when McGovern opens the glass-fronted cabinet they share with the coffee mugs.
These, though, are the tools of his trade. McGovern, who is also an adjunct professor of anthropology at Penn, has spent most of his career in focusing on a branch of chemistry most archaeologists—and even a lot of chemists—avoid.
“Archaeologists tend to stay on the inorganic side of things,” he says. “But the organic side is really what we are, much more, as human beings. So as more information becomes available about food and drink and so forth, I think archaeologists are getting more interested in feasting and drinking ceremonies, and how much importance they had to the development of human culture.”
Though McGovern has helped propel the Penn Museum to the forefront of what you might call the eat-drink-and-be-merry niche of archaeological research, the Museum has harbored interest in beer and wine for at least 25 years. In 1986, Penn anthropology professor Solomon Katz and Near East Section research specialist Mary Voigt published an influential article in the Museum’s journal, Expeditions, exploring the role of beer-making in the history of agriculture. Their thesis had its genesis in a question first posed by botanist Jonathan Sauer in the 1950s. Prompted by archaeologist Robert Braidwood’s seminal work on early food production in Jarmo, Iraq, which was considered one of the oldest agricultural communities in the world, Sauer wondered if bread was as important a part of the story there as most people assumed.
As Braidwood later relayed the query to his colleagues: “Could the discovery that a mash of fermented grains yielded a palatable and nutritious beverage have acted as a greater stimulant toward the experimental selection of a breeding of cereals than the discovery of flour and breadmaking?”
Katz and Voigt laid out a persuasive argument that, in terms of biocultural evolution, beer made an awful lot of sense.
“Suppose that the consumption of a food produced an altered state of awareness or consciousness that was noticeable, but that did not have serious toxic side effects,” they wrote. “Now suppose that this food also had a second, imperceptible effect, a substantial improvement in nutritional value over the unprocessed cereal grains. This is exactly what happens when barley and wheat are fermented into beer.”
Fermentation is a nutritional boon whether it’s used to raise a dough or produce beer. Among other benefits, yeast manufactures the important dietary protein lysine, and is an abundant source of B vitamins, which enhance immune- and nervous-system functioning. Alcohol has the additional advantage of killing bacteria in contaminated drinking water. Therefore, Katz and Voigt continued, “individuals and groups who consumed beer were better nourished than those who consumed wheat and barley as gruel”—which is probably the earliest way humans ate grains. “In biological terms, beer drinkers would have had a ‘selective advantage’ in the form of improved health for themselves and ultimately for their offspring.”
People do not, of course, change their behavior to reap an “imperceptible” advantage. But that’s where beer has something going for it that bread does not: the ability to deliver a pleasant but modest high that, as any Saturday night on Penn’s campus demonstrates, people will go to great lengths to regain.
In 1989, Katz teamed up with Fritz Maytag of San Francisco’s Anchor Steam Brewery to brew a beer from a loose “recipe” embedded in an ancient hymn to the Sumerian goddess Ninkasi, which was preserved on an ancient tablet.
“Sol was definitely somebody that gave me a lot of inspiration in this,” McGovern says. “That article pointed out some of the advantages of fermented versus unfermented beverages. And the Ninkasi was an example for how to re-create a beverage. But you have a lot better chemical techniques now.”
Katz, who is still an anthropology professor and directs the Krogman Center for Research in Child Growth and Development at Penn, concurs—and traces some of McGovern’s advances to a change they both helped to bring about at the Museum in the 1980s.
“Archaeologists used to clean everything out—you know, make all these pots look pretty and get rid of all the junk that was in them,” he laughs. “I sort of came along to Pat’s boss and tried to encourage him to set up the whole program in a different way, [oriented more] towards organic analysis. And of course Patrick was already doing some organic work.”
McGovern’s first foray into ancient fermented beverages involved a site called Godin Tepe in the Zagros Mountains of Iran, where he helped identify the chemical fingerprints of grape wine and barley beer in pottery vessels dating to 3500 B.C. But his interest in feasting and drinking really took flight when he shifted his attention several millennia forward to the tomb of King Midas.
The hermetically sealed Midas tumulus in Gordion, Turkey was first pierced by a Penn Museum excavation in 1957. Among the treasures inside were 157 bronze vessels comprising the largest Iron Age drinking set ever discovered. From the trio of 150-liter cauldrons to the plethora of ornately fashioned drinking bowls and jugs, it was apparent that the funeral-goers had had a good time.
“This was the easiest excavation I ever had to do,” McGovern likes to joke half a century later. “It turns out that these residues … had been brought back to the Museum, and they had sat in their original paper bag two flights above my laboratory.”
What he deduced from them wasn’t so much a recipe as a confusing mess. Traces of calcium oxalate testified to the presence of barley beer. Tartaric acid, given the tomb’s location in the Middle East, was a dead giveaway for grape wine. Beeswax compounds indicated honey or mead.
This was an extremely unusual beverage. “You could almost sort of cringe at the thought of drinking such a thing,” McGovern says. He was so perplexed by the notion of mixing all those ingredients together that, in 2000, he issued a challenge to a group of microbrewers who’d come to the Penn Museum for an event honoring the beer writer Michael Jackson. “Their goal,” as he writes in his new book, Uncorking the Past (see excerpt), was to “carry out experiments with the ingredients identified in our chemical analyses to prove or disprove the concept of such a drink.”
Sam Calagione was more than game. “I remember Doctor Pat, this very scientific man, came down and first he said, ‘Do you guys have a lab that we can do some tests in?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah. We have a lab.’ Our lab was my black lab, named Phoebe. But we did have a lab.”
Although McGovern’s analysis could specify some of the ingredients, he couldn’t determine their exact ratios, or the alcohol content, or the degree to which the beverage had been carbonated. So Dogfish Head had some creative latitude. Their main challenge was to come up with a bittering agent to offset the sweetness of the grapes and honey. Since hops, the traditional choice for brewers, did not grow in Turkey in Midas’s time, that ingredient was out of bounds. Saffron, which was present there, emerged as an alternative. Finding Turkish grapes with sufficient archaeological bona fides proved impossible, so Calagione and his head brewer settled on Muscat grapes, an ancient vinifera stock which they deemed the closest substitute.
Working through successive problems, the brewery came up with a solution in time to fill the glasses at a Penn Museum dinner re-creating the whole Midas funerary feast, which McGovern reckons is the first time anyone ever reconstructed a historic meal from the chemical analysis of ancient organic residues. (The legendary king’s mourners ate lamb and lentil stew, which they evidently liked on the spicy side.)
“As you can imagine,” Calagione recalls, “beer with white Muscat grapes from California, saffron from Turkey, and thyme honey from Italy [was] extremely expensive to make. So we didn’t think we’d ever make it again, other than at this dinner. But it really captivated people’s imaginations. People magazine did something on it. The Today Show did something on it. And it was incredible for giving momentum and validity to the idea that you don’t have to reference the Reinheitsgebot to be brewing traditional beers.”
Jan|Feb 2010 contents
Man, The Drinker By Trey Popp
Photography by Candace diCarlo
Bronze Age mixing bowl wine set from Tell
es-Sa’idiyeh in the Jordan Valley, circa 1200 B.C.