Alcohol in Archaeology and Modern Life

iStock / JoeChristensen

A colleague just dropped an academic article titled "Ancient beer and modern brewers" on my desk, culled from a recent issue of Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. (I love working with nerds...I mean, people who are far more well-read than myself!)

The article focuses on the production of chicha, a beer-like beverage typically made from maize, in both prehispanic and modern Andean cultures. To be honest, it's not terribly interesting to a layperson like myself. But the abstract begins: "Archaeological studies of alcohol have tended to focus on consumption..." which sent me off on a tangent. Are there a lot of archaeological studies of alcohol, I wondered?

Well, more than I thought. A bit of online excavation led me to articles about how so-called molecular archaeologists have linked chocolate to alcohol, traced wine back as far as the Stone Age, and even tried to recreate ancient beers for modern breweries. (Actually, all three of those studies involve the same guy, Patrick McGovern at the University of Pennsylvania. So apparently the field is rather small.)

There's at least one book on this topic: Frederick H. Smith's The Archaeology of Alcohol and Drinking, published last year by University Press of Florida.

Helpfully, Smith's introduction sums up the history of "alcohol studies," explaining that there is a lot of "scholarly ambivalence" about the topic, reflecting the general love-hate relationship humans have long had with intoxicating substances (remember Prohibition?). In archaeological research, Smith writes, "investigations of alcohol are typically serendipitous by-products of fieldwork that had other emphases." Which, he argues, shouldn't be the case, since the world's most widely used drug "provides a prism through which to view life over the past five centuries."

The New York Times has picked up on this alcohol-as-prism idea with a blog called Proof: Alcohol and American Life. It's a fascinating concoction of personal essays that range from AA-style confessionals to nostalgia-tinted tales about the best bars of yesteryear. Some posts have elicited more than 500 comments, so clearly readers connect to the subject. Alcohol may represent celebration, sickness, consolation, temptation, or something else entirely to any given individual, but it's rarely neutral.

It's interesting to consider what future generations of archaeologists and anthropologists might infer about the role of alcohol in early 21st-century societies. The swizzle stick from last night's cocktail could be considered a valuable artifact someday. (Though I hope artifacts like these beer helmets will get lost in the sands of time.)

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