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Response to Archaeobotanists letter

February 19, 2008

In reply to the Irish Archaeobotanical Discussion Groups letter about the article on Fulacht Fiadh and brewing published in Archaeology Ireland, in the first instance we’d like to state our delight in receiving such a stimulating and provoking response and warmly acknowledge the group’s congratulations on our experimental endeavours. It is always a welcome and worthwhile experience to engage in a debate on a subject which obviously exercised many minds, and if all we succeeded to do was facilitate a discussion on the function of the fulacht fiadh then we can count our work as a success. Furthermore we support the group’s assertion that further analysis of micro-residues from fulacht fiadh sites is necessary and may indeed provide a better understanding of activities taking place at these enigmatic sites.

The Irish Archaeobotanical Discussion Group raised two issues in relation to our research both of which were not entirely unanticipated and touched upon, if ever so slightly, in our original article. The first issue was in relation to the ‘conspicuous’ lack of plant macro-remains from fulacht fiadh in Ireland (e.g. grains, chaff and seeds).

In all we used 150 kg of malted barley in making our ale over the course of three brews, a small percentage of this we used to make malt loaves or griddle biscuits (as Beernut mentions in his comment) and some we fed to cattle as a fodder (as both Beernut and Chris G mention), the bulk of the mashed grain however was simply dumped to the rear of Billy’s garden in Headford. Within a matter of weeks this dump had entirely disappeared to the extent that it was practically impossible to determine the exact dumping spot. The spent grain had simply been eaten by animals, birds or vermin. This explanation is certainly not a scientific one but discarded food whether in the Bronze Age or 2007 will always find a willing consumer.

We also contend that the effort in growing, malting and milling the grain was such that even the spent product would have been regarded as a valuable resource and that in the interest of reusing the fulacht, following each mash the site would have been thoroughly cleaned and the detritus removed and recycled in the manner previously suggested.

The groups own studies of plant macro-remains from 132 fulacht fiadh throughout the country indicate that cereal remains were recorded at less than 8% of examined sites. Given the survival rate of spent grain in Billy’s back yard, we believe this to be a good starting point to build an argument for the theory, to use a drinking analogy, we prefer to see the glass half full if you will.

The arguments in relation to quern stones is certainly not central to the production process or the success of the experiment but is worth discussing. The group’s point that Querns ‘presence does not automatically mean that the processing of cereals was taking place at these sites’ is valid but the reverse is equally as true. As to ritual deposition we submit that our reference to Querns in association with fulacht fiadh is a practical interpretation of a tools use for a purpose it was originally designed for rather than investing its presence at such sites with a specious symbolic meaning. We’re of the Occam’s Razor school of archaeological thought (that the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, eliminating those that make no difference in the observable predictions of the explanatory hypothesis or theory).

We reiterate that fulacht fiadh were the kitchen sinks of the Bronze Age and possibly had many functions. However, in the balance of probabilities, we suggest that brewing was chief amongst them.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 19, 2008 12:55 pm

    Is there anyway of comparing fulacht fiadh (is there a phonetic pronuciation guide of this for us nongaelic speakers?) to other “grain heavy” hotspots on sites. ie food stores , grinding stones etc or does the age of the sites obscure the evidence so much? Did any other ancient cultures use a similar method ?

  2. February 19, 2008 2:38 pm

    Chris – Clear chemical evidence for brewing in Sumeria at Godin Tepe (modern day Iran) comes from fermentation vessels where there were pits in the ground noted by the excavators – and in the Hymn to Ninkasi (1800 BC) there is the following reference to pits in the ground:

    You are the one who handles the dough,
    [and] with a big shovel,
    Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics,
    Ninkasi, You are the one who handles
    the dough, [and] with a big shovel,
    Mixing in a pit, the bappir with [date]-honey.

    You are the one who bakes the bappir
    in the big oven,
    Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,
    Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes
    the bappir in the big oven,
    Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,

    You are the one who waters the malt
    set on the ground,
    The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,
    Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the malt
    set on the ground,
    The noble dogs keep away even the potentates.

    You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar
    The waves rise, the waves fall.
    Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks
    the malt in a jar
    The waves rise, the waves fall.

    You are the one who spreads the cooked
    mash on large reed mats,
    Coolness overcomes.
    Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads
    the cooked mash on large reed mats,
    Coolness overcomes.

    You are the one who holds with both hands
    the great sweet wort,
    Brewing [it] with honey and wine
    (You the sweet wort to the vessel)
    Ninkasi, (…)
    (You the sweet wort to the vessel)

    The filtering vat, which makes
    a pleasant sound,
    You place appropriately on [top of]
    a large collector vat.
    Ninkasi, the filtering vat,
    which makes a pleasant sound,
    You place appropriately on [top of]
    a large collector vat.

    So clearly, at the very least (from Ian Hornsey’s ‘A History of Beer and Brewing’), “bappir” dough was being mixed with “sweet aromatics” using a “big shovel… in a pit”. Meaning that a pit was integral to the brewing process in the Fertile Crescent at least 5500 years ago. Although the malting took place elsewhere and the filtering was carried out in a filter vat which led to a large collector vat, there is no description of how the temperature was controlled during the brewing! Now, admittedly, it would be idle speculation to posit that the pit was used again in the process for heating the wort, but our reading of the Hymn to Ninkasi certainly excited us during the research (and we were delighted to meet Miguel Civil who translated the Hymn – and of course yourself, Pete and Max).

    As we point out in our article:

    Until recently the hot rock method was used by Rauchenfels brewery, Bavaria. Here the brewers used greywacke. Sahti, an unhopped ale still served at rural feasts in Finland, is prepared by immersing hot stones into a wooden mash tun to raise the temperature and create a simple ale that is flavoured by filtering it through juniper branches. The tradition has been traced back over 500 years.

    Regarding comparisons with ‘grain rich’ sites such as processing areas etc.., we’re not experts on that, but we are working with some people on a suite of tests which could be carried out at fulacht sites. When we have more info on that we’ll post it here. But as the Archaeobotanists point out further analysis of micro-residues from fulacht fiadh sites is necessary and more detailed testing and analysis methodologies need to be formulated. Frequently these sites are excavated with little thought as to their purpose and simply removed as a matter of course. Hopefully, we’ll have instigated a little more forethought and the use of more insightful and well planned research objectives in the field.

    Fulacht is pronounced ‘Full-acht’ (like the ‘acht’ in ‘Achtung Minen’ or ‘Achtung Britischer Schvienhund’ or ‘Achtung Baby’) and ‘fiadh’ is pronounced ‘fia’ (like ‘see-ya’).

    And (just looking through our stats) who is searching google for the ’36ft human skeleton’ – there’s no such thing!

  3. EcoWarrior permalink
    February 19, 2008 8:28 pm

    Excellent post! I read the letter in Archaeology Ireland and was itching to read your response. Well done!

  4. tinkerbell permalink
    February 29, 2008 2:49 pm

    It could also be “Ach, prepare to die Englander”. For some reason Warlord comics seemed to beleive all Germans preceded every utterence with “ach”. Having worked extensively throughout Germany I can vouch that this is in fact true. Some examples I encountered were “Ach, Irish, you are drunk again”, “ach, Irish, that woman is my wife” and “ach, prepare to die Irisher”. It must be stated that this was most evident in Northern Germany. In the Freisian Islands I noticed all sentences started with “Huuup!” which sometimes accounted for the entire sentance. A multi-purpose word if you will that could mean anything from ‘you’re drunk again’ to ‘that woman is my wife’.

    Southern Germans prefered to use “Hum-pa-pa”. Which made conversation very difficult.

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