Bronze Age Microbreweries
May 19, 2008

Bronze Age Brewery

(In borrowed gear at the excavated burnt mound near the Tomb of the Eagles, Orkney)

While in the Orkneys last year, I noticed the plethora of “burnt mounds” on the OS map, and I wondered what they might have been for. While in the visitors centre of the Tomb of the Eagles, one of the archaeologists there was hot with excitement about something she’d just read. She asked me to guess what the mounds might have been and I offered something about cooking and food storage, and she said– “Almost! How about a brewery? Think about it!” and I did.

I was prompted to post this shortly after reading the story of St. Brigid, the patron saint of brewers, turning bathwater to beer for some lepers. This bathwater might have been a vat of soaking barley, part of the malting process, as The Zythophile points out. Recent research conjectures these bronze age burnt mounds might just be ancient versions of this kind of processing. Apparently these researchers brewed an ancient ale using similar facilities, and the drink was “sweet,” being unhopped– I would have liked to try that!

St. Brigid is the Christianized version of a much older Goddess, Bride, whose name appears in places all over this island. If these researchers are correct, this brew, a joy older than bread, has left its ancient mark on the landscape. Sumeria has written records of brewsters and even recipies, but these sites will remain a prehistoric mystery, not unlike the process of fermentation itself. Michael Jackson describes wild yeast, “descend[ing] from Heaven even more gently than rain.” He imagines it must have seemed magical to ancient people. And I would venture– a gift of a benevolent and fecund goddess.