The Archaeology Of Series

A Pirate’s Life for Me: The Bioarchaeology of Scurvy

In the romanticized imagery of a swash-buckling rogue who plunders and pillages his way through an anti-hero story arc, pirates have time and time again captured the public’s imagination. This summer marks 15 years since Pirates of the Caribbean first appeared as a major motion picture, adapted by Disney from its popular water ride that first appeared in the late 1960s. While the continued popularity of this franchise, which has now grossed over 4.5 billon dollars in total, demonstrates our continued fascination with these sea faring scoundrels, pirates for popular consumption is hardly a new concept. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island was first published as a book in 1883 and has enjoyed success in countless adaptations since. Captain Hook, the notorious villain of Neverland, first appeared in J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play, Peter Pan; or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.

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The Archaeology Of Series

The Archaeology of… Fermentation

Fraoch Heather Ale by Williams Bros Brewing Company, Scotland (Photo by Author)

Within the last few years, my hometown has seen a fortunate increase in both microbreweries and local distilleries. At one of my new favorite places to purchase craft beers I came across a beer that inspired this blog post. The Scottish brewed Fraoch Heather Ale boasts right on the bottle that the recipe originated in Scotland, 4000 years ago. “Leann Fraoch”, Gaelic for heather ale, is a light amber ale made from malted wheat, barley and hops (the usual suspects for beer) with bog myrtle (an herb native to Scotland) and heather, the purple shrub so indicative of the British Isles. While the heather ale brewed in Scotland today by Williams Bros Brewing Company is no doubt a reconstruction (using modern ingredients for a modern palette with modern fermentation processes), there is in fact evidence of a fermented drink containing heather dating back to 2ooo B.C. in Scotland. Analysis of Neolithic pot sherds from the Isle of Rhum revealed the residue of mashed cereal straw, cereal-type pollen, meadowsweet, heather, and royal fern that researchers have interpreted as an ancient brew of Northern Europe (Gregory et al. 2005; Nelson, 2005).

This investigation into the Neolithic origins of modern Scottish beer sparked other questions for me concerning drinking in the past. When in the past did we begin exploiting the process of fermentation? What lines of evidence contribute to our understanding of past fermentation practices and the recreation of these recipes? And finally, is it possible to identify an alcoholic from skeletal remains of such an individual? Throughout this post, I will explore these questions as I delve into the archaeological, historical, and biochemical literature concerning fermentation.

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