As a scholar of anthropology, I am frequently questioned about the plausibility of science on tv shows. This is especially true for the show Bones. Typically I’m asked if some forensic method or another Dr. Brennan employs is realistic. The answers range from “Yes kind of” to “Maybe in certain circumstances” to “Definitely not”. One of the “Maybe in certain circumstances” situations occurs in the Pilot of the series. As the Pilot, this episode serves to establish the working relationship between Dr. Temperance Brennan and FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth. Booth is bringing Brennan in on a case in which a body was found at the bottom of a lake at Arlington Cemetery. The scene plays out like this:
My first field school was a project investigating Medieval population demographics through the analysis of funerary excavations at various cemeteries in Romania, specifically in Transylvania. Before and after I went on this trip I got varying reactions from friends and family members. Someone even laughed at my destination, not realizing that Transylvania actually exists as a cultural/geographic region and not just as the mythological birthplace of Dracula. One of the most popular questions I received was “Oh, going to dig up some vampires, are you?” And while those who asked were obviously inquiring in jest the answer is not actually a resounding “no, of course not” that you might expect. While there are no un-dead among us, sucking blood and avoiding the garlic fries on the menu at your favorite restaurant, anthropology teaches us that many legends are based in fact. And the fact of the matter is, there was a time when people believed that their towns were being terrorized by vampires, and that fact may be translated into certain burial practices for the “monster” in question.
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.