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Oldest Evidence of British Beer Found in Highway Dig

Charred residues show cracked grain and starch molecules likely used as part of a beer brewing session in 400 B.C.

Charred residue containing evidence of beer making. (MOLA Headland Infrastructure)
smithsonian.com

Beer has been intertwined with British history longer than just about anything, including tea, Buckingham Palace and even fish and chips. But that special relationship with ale was long something that Britons just felt in their bones; archaeologists didn’t really have any evidence showing how long inhabitants of the island nation have been quaffing suds. Now, new residues uncovered during road construction pushes back the birth of booze in Britain to somewhere around 400 B.C.

The find, Haroon Siddique at the Guardian reports, comes as part of a massive archaeology project conducted by the firm Mola Headland Infrastructure, which has fielded 250 archaeologists at 33 sites ahead of a major 21-mile expansion of the A14 motorway in Cambridgeshire. As part of that process, the researchers have collected more than 9,000 environmental samples along the route of the highway.

When archaeobotanist Lara Gonzalez Carretero took a peek at one of those samples, something jumped out at her: what looked like the byproduct of beer brewing. Under a regular microscope, brewing remains can be confused for bread and porridge, which have also been found in the environmental samples, so Carretero examined the beer crumbs even more closely, using a scanning-electron microscope which confirmed her findings.

“I knew when I looked at these tiny fragments under the microscope that I had something special. The microstructure of these remains had clearly changed through the fermentation process. Air bubbles typical of those formed in the boiling and mashing process of brewing are present,” she says in a press release.

At the magnification level of a scanning electron microscope, the difference between bread and beer is stark; the bread fragments reveal fine flour particles while beer shows cracked grain and larger starch granules, a separate press release details.

The finding is likely the earliest evidence of beer brewing in the U.K. Steve Sherlock, lead archaeologist on the project, says the discovery is not a shock. “It’s a well-known fact that ancient populations used the beer-making process to purify water and create a safe source of hydration,” he says in the release. This is just the earliest documented evidence of that process occurring in Britain.

But while the discovery may technically be beer, it would have been quite different from the ales currently served up in English pubs. When the Romans first invaded Britain in 55 and 54 B.C., they found the locals drank a beer known as curmi which was flavored with herbs and spices. Hops, the predominant flavor for beer today, didn’t make the scene until the 1400s in the U.K.

Beer isn’t the only thing archaeologists have uncovered in Cambridgeshire. They’ve also found 40 pottery kilns, 342 human burials, Roman coins from the 3rd century and a Roman supply depot, three Anglo-Saxon villages, a medieval village as well as woolly mammoths.

And while the U.K. beer nugget is old, it’s nowhere near as ancient as the oldest traces of beer found in the world. Last year, for instance, researchers found evidence of beer making in Raqefet Cave, near present-day Haifa, Israel, where members of an ancient culture called the Natufians were producing beer 13,000 years ago.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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