Archaeologists Find Earliest Known Beer Mega-factory, in Egypt

Facilities to make beer go back over 13,000 years, but nothing the size of this facility – built by a necropolis at Abydos – had been found before

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The ancient Egyptian beer production site at Abydos.
YOUR ROUND: The ancient Egyptian beer production site at Abydos.Credit: - - AFP

A beer factory that may go back more than 5,000 years has been found in Egypt at the ancient city of Abydos, located near the Nile about 450 kilometers (280 miles) south of Cairo. The discovery was announced by Egyptian authorities on Saturday.

The factory apparently dates to the region of King Narmer, who is famed for unifying ancient Egypt at the beginning of the First Dynastic Period (3150 B.C.E- 2613 B.C.E.), said Mostafa Waziri, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities.

American and Egyptian archaeologists found eight enormous production units, each one 20 meters (about 65 feet) long and 2.5 meters wide. The units contained about 40 pottery basins in two rows, which had been used to heat a mixture of grain and water to produce beer, Waziri said.

Clearly, the facility was producing prodigious amounts of quaff in one of ancient Egypt’s major early cities. Mission co-chairman Dr. Matthew Adams of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts suggests the beer was being produced not only for simple drinking but for use in rituals by the elites.

The Egyptian authorities noted that British archaeologists had postulated the existence of the factory over a century ago, but it couldn’t be found. Now it has.

The ancient Egyptian beer production site at Abydos.Credit: - - AFP
Reliefs at a temple in Abydos, ancient EgyptCredit: Olaf Tausch

How highly the ancient Egyptians regarded beer may be inferred by the fact that Tjenenyet – the goddess in charge of women in labor – was also responsible for brewing beer. She was popular mainly during the Middle Kingdom and start of the New Kingdom, but thereafter seems to have faded into obscurity. We must admit, though, that her depiction was with a bovine uterus on her head, not a beer pot. Later, her image merged with that of Isis.

The good life

Hints of beer production go back over 13,000 years, to the early days of the Neolithic revolution in the Levant, as humans moved from a hunting-gathering lifestyle to a settled one. It helps if we are loose about what we term “beer.”

Beer is essentially any fermented beverage begun from a natural carbohydrate, which may be grain but could equally be a tuber, a stalk or even hemp.

Troughs that archaeologists think may have been used to make beer were found at Göbekli Tepe, the so-called “earliest temple in the world” in eastern Turkey, which dates to over 11,000 years ago.

The ancient Egyptian beer production site at Abydos.Credit: - - AFP

At about the time the Abydos factory was active, so were brewers in Canaan. In separate work, Israeli scientists sampled ancient yeast spores trapped in the clay pores of ceramic beer-brewing jars, and resurrected the ancient microorganisms, which they used to make beer. Reportedly, it wasn’t horrible.

The oldest of the pots in that study came from Ein Besor, an Egyptian site in the northern Negev desert and dated to well over 5,000 years ago; other specimens came from the Philistine city of Gath, and more.

The mass manufacturing facility now reported in Abydos is a whole other dimension in manufacturing – though it wasn’t the only beverage factory in the ancient world. In 2012, archaeologists reported finding what may have been a beer factory in ancient Cyprus that also goes back to the fourth millennium B.C.E., at a site called Kissonerga-Skalia. The discovery there wasn’t a vast array of brewing pots but kilns that may have been used to desiccate malt ahead of fermentation.

Drunk in the afterlife

With its vast cemeteries and temples from the earliest times of ancient Egypt, Abydos was known for monuments honoring Osiris, ancient Egypt’s god of the underworld and the deity responsible for judging souls in the afterlife. Its necropolis, from which the beer factory is not far, had been used throughout ancient Egyptian history, from the prehistoric age to Roman times.

The ancient Egyptian beer production site at Abydos.Credit: - - AFP

Apropos burial, ancient Egyptians who could afford it would be buried with written manuals for the afterlife, such as but not confined to the Book of the Dead and Books of Breathing. The dead were expected to continue breathing, eating, drinking and, evidently, quaffing beer.

The translations of these texts may differ in nuances, but all agree that beer was there. These books of the dead were formulaic but not categorically so, and would be individualized for the dearly departed. One fragment of a Book of Breathing written for the Hor, a Theban priest for Amun-Ra, explicitly mentions:

“May your ba-spirit make for you an invocation-offering consisting of bread, beer, beef and fowl, and of cool water and incense in the course of [every] day.” (Translation by Ritner, 2010.)

So what have we here? Beer was popular in the ancient world. Some even think that, far from being an artifact of early agriculture, some slob left wet grain in a clay pot, it fermented, they drank it anyway and Bob’s your buzzed uncle – early agriculture arose from the desire to make beer.

That theory has been around for decades. Then in 2018, a study reported that the Natufian civilization in what is today Israel, who didn’t have agriculture per se yet (though they were clearly experimenting with early cultivation for thousands of years), may have had beer. This is based on analysis of residue found in stone mortars in Raqefet Cave, northern Israel, from 13,000 years ago. Ergo, beer may have predated farming – and its production may have been a motivating factor for the original domestication of cereals in some areas. Archaeologists like to think the ancients desired beer to elevate them spiritually. Just as we do today.

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