Matthew Adams has been part of the German BeerAcademy’s team of lecturers for several years, but he has been working as head of the excavation in Abydos, Egypt, for much longer. There he has been working for some time on researching what is probably the oldest industrial brewery in the world. It is more than 5,000 years old and would easily be able to compete with a medium-sized brewery today. But the beer was not intended for drinking, it served as a sacrifice to the gods. Meet Matthew and his discovery in this episode of our podcast….
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Markus Raupach: Hello, and welcome to another episode of our podcast BierTalk. Today we are far away and in both worlds somehow because we are in the States, we are in Egypt, we are in the beer history. We meet very, very nice and interesting person. We meet Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams. He is director of the Excavation Abydos in Egypt, but also an archeologist, scientist and maybe you introduce yourself a bit to our listeners.
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: Thank you, Markus, for the kind introduction. My name is Matthew Adams. I work at New York University in the States and I’m an archaeologist by training. I took my PhD many years ago now from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. And I’ve been working at the side of Abydos for more than 40 years now. And for about five years, focused on the ancient brewery that has turned out to be so much bigger and more elaborate and has exceeded our expectations in every possible way. And I’m very excited about the opportunity to share something of that with your audience.
Markus Raupach: Yeah, that’s fantastic. And I’m also very excited to be able to do this with you. And we already have met several times in our beer sommelier courses where you are giving a speech, always to our attendants and it’s always fantastic. It’s every time something new every time. I also learn something new. So really, it’s a great thing. But maybe first 40 years, is it more or less your second home now?
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: Basically, yes. I would say that I probably feel just as much at home in the field at Abydos, as I do here in the States. The people that I work with there, many of them have been part of my life for decades. A few of them go back all the way to the very beginning. But the house, the field house where the project is based, when we’re working, that also has become like home. And so much so that my wife and my son usually come with me when we’re working. And my kid is very close with the kids of some of our Egyptian team members. And so it’s a kind of family that’s been together for a long, long time. And we’re all in this big work together.
Markus Raupach: And also, I think Egypt has changed a lot in the last 40 years. So not only government-wise, also economically, ecologically. So I think that’s also interesting to see in place.
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: Yes, this is true. Egypt has changed a great deal. The population has increased dramatically. And we see this on the ground. You see it in Cairo. Cairo is a city of more than 20 million people now. And at our site, which is in a quite remote agricultural area, it’s just villages close to us. Here too, we see the growth in that agricultural fields have been developed in the last 20 years, all around the site in the desert. And what used to be 20, 30 years ago, a quite pristine desert environment, now it’s green. And this has a number of implications for the archaeological site. The environment is much more humid than it was in the past. The groundwater is higher than it would be naturally because of the year-round irrigation of these desert fields. We have insect and bird populations that have exploded, whereas in the past, we would not have had ancient monuments filled with flocks of sparrows, burrowing their little nest holes into the walls. Today, this is a big problem, it’s a great challenge to us and our Egyptian colleagues, in terms of how we preserve the monuments against the damage that this causes. So there’s a whole range of impacts. But fortunately, the Egyptian authorities are very dedicated to the preservation of the archaeology to the greatest extent possible. And so the main components of the ancient place themselves have been protected. So they’re preserved from development pressures, and so on that might have destroyed them. So they’ll survive for the future. But the environment has certainly changed a lot.
Markus Raupach: That’s really very interesting. So we are starting more or less right in the middle. But I think it’s a funny way to start in such an interview, because it’s really interesting. It’s a very different country. And if you say this, where does all this water come from? Is it from the Nile River? Or did they have fossil water? Or what do they use?
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: No, they dig very, very deep wells into deep aquifers. So it’s very ancient water. And we don’t know these aquifers, I don’t think have been very well explored by geologists. And so it’s really a big question about how sustainable this desert development is. It also leads to, the evaporation rate is very, very high, which leads to the buildup of salts in the soil. So this is a challenge also for the long-term sustainability of the desert agriculture. For now, it’s working. But in the long term, it’s difficult to say.
Markus Raupach: Yes, really interesting. It reminds a bit to the man-made river project in Libya, which has been some decades ago, but you never know. But maybe we first come back to you and your person and how you came in all this. So and also we are the BierTalk. So maybe we come a bit to you, how did you start in archeology? Was it always your dream? And maybe did you have a beer in this?
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: Yes, it was always my dream. I’m one of those people in archaeology who, when I was a child, maybe eight or nine years old, somehow, I knew already at that young age that archaeology is what I loved. Archaeology is what I wanted to do. And not just any archaeology, but Egypt specifically. And for whatever reason, I never even thought of any alternatives. I was very lucky that my family was very supportive of this. And so I was able to go to university where this very specific kind of study was possible. And in going to the University of Pennsylvania, this is what brought me to the site of Abydos, because the professor with whom I worked there, David O’Connor, he had a long-standing archeological excavation program at the site that he had started in the 1960s. I came in the 1980s to work with him. And so he brought me in to working at Abydos, and with his support, I did my PhD research there. And eventually, he brought me in to direct the project when he reached a stage in his career where he no longer was really able to take the time to go into the field for many months at a stretch. And so since the 1990s, I’ve been directing the work there for New York University.
Markus Raupach: So you started very early in the archeology career. But when did your beer career start?
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: Well, there are two parts to this question. The first part is most people when they go to the university, this is when they learn to be beer drinkers, they learn to appreciate beer maybe a little bit too much during that time. But this was somehow this didn’t interest me. But when I was still a student going on archaeological excavations in other parts of the world, being trained in how to do excavation, this was in Turkey. Several summers, I worked in Turkey, and then also in Syria. When archaeologists are in the field, beer is extremely important. This is a big part of the social life of doing archaeology. When you’re at the excavation at the end of the day, coming back and having a beer with your colleagues, very important. And so this is the context in which I learned to appreciate beer. And even to this day, this is the way that I enjoy beer most. When I’m in Abydos, we’ve had a good day of work on the site, coming back, and the main beer available in Egypt is locally made. It’s called Stella. And it’s rather in the Belgian tradition. I think the original breweries in Egypt more than a century ago, were set up by Belgian businessman. And so there’s a certain similarity between the taste of Egyptian Stella and Stella Artois. And this is having that beer at the end of the day is a perfect moment. In some ways, there’s just nothing better than that. And it’s something that I look forward to very much. When I’m back in the US in between field seasons, one of the things that I really am excited about getting back to is that moment, coming back at the end of the day and having that beer. So that’s one part of the question. The other part of the question has to do with our research. And for many years, I’ve been focused on understanding what Egypt’s first kings were doing at the site of Abydos. Their ancestors were from this place. This was their ancestral home. And the first let’s say, eight or so, kings of Egypt came back. They were ruling near modern Cairo, they set up a new capital there called Memphis. But yet they came back to Abydos which is hundreds of kilometers to the south to build their tombs. They had, they created Egypt’s first great royal necropolis like something like the Valley of the Kings, but many centuries earlier. They created this there at Abydos. They were buried among their ancestors. And the same kings built gigantic funerary temples for themselves. And this is what I’ve been working on for many years. Understanding exactly what these temples were and how they were used. And one of the most intriguing things that we have found there is that in many of them, there are huge deposits of empty beer containers. Ceramic vessels of a particular shape that we know was used to contain beer, thousands of them in great piles around the outside of these monuments. And this tells us that beer was used in very large quantities in the ritual activities that took place inside the temples. And I also knew that more than a hundred years ago, a British archaeologist had found the remains of something that looked very much like a brewery. But his published report wasn’t so detailed and I always had the idea that I wanted to come back to this part of the site and investigate it more fully. So we were able to begin doing that in 2018. And very quickly, we realized that the brewery which dates to around five thousand years ago, so around 3000 BC, this brewery is completely unparalleled, not only in ancient Egypt, but anywhere in the ancient world. There’s nothing known until now, that even begins to compare to the scale of production. And it’s exactly in line with the kind of scale of the use of beer that we observed with all of these empty containers because the brewery could produce many thousands of litres of beer per batch in each production cycle. And so this is truly industrial scale production, even in modern standards. And this is right at the beginning of ancient Egyptian history. It’s almost difficult to believe that a production process could be organized on this level so long ago. All the hundreds and hundreds of people that would have been involved in making this place operate and the administration of all of that. They had to have people organizing and coordinating all the different parts that were moving at the same time and bringing it all together to make it work reasonably well. So this is something that was really, we didn’t anticipate that it would be anything like this. And so this is the new discovery that really has come out of our work, confirming that it was indeed a brewery, it wasn’t being used for something else and that the scale is really gigantic. This was a tremendous surprise to me and to everyone who works on beer in ancient Egypt,
Markus Raupach: And not only in ancient Egypt, also nowadays. If you hear that size, we will talk about that maybe a little bit later. But that’s really very impressive. And at the first moment, I really couldn’t believe it. But maybe first we talk a little bit about how archeology works, because you say it was already excavated or explored more than one hundred years ago. So that means someone is digging out a place and afterwards the sand is being put on it again. Or how does it, does it work that you can rediscover the place again a hundred years later?
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: Well, so this British archaeologist, his name was Eric Pete. He worked there in around 1911, 12, 13 right before the Great War. And he discovered, he was really looking for tombs. Because at that time he was exploring the ancient desert cemetery of the site. And this was important for them because the institutions and individuals who paid for the excavations, they were interested in getting objects for their museum collections or their private collections if they were wealthy individuals. And in those days, the Egyptian government had a policy of what was called portage, which is a division. The authorities in Egypt would keep the more important pieces that came out of the excavations, but the rest they allowed the excavators to take back to their home countries. And this is how a lot of material, not all, but a lot of material came to various museum collections in Europe and the United States and other places. So it wasn’t all taken out illicitly, by any means. This was a perfectly legal process that was the standard way that things were done at that time. But so it was very important to find the kinds of small objects, jewelry, alabaster, little alabaster cosmetic vessels, pottery vessels, things like this, that were very attractive from the perspective of a museum or a private collector. And these are the things that you find in tombs. So this is what Pete was looking for. And he found tombs in this particular case, from the early Old Kingdom. So this is around 2600 BC or so. But he found also that the tombs were built directly on top of the remains of something else entirely. These long, narrow structures about two meters or so wide, and 20 or 30 meters long, he wasn’t able to find the actual ends of any of them. But he found several of these, that the tombs had been built over and these earlier structures were filled with big pottery vats. These cone shaped pottery vessels, and they were also filled with a lot of evidence of burning. Everything was red. The sand underneath was red. The pottery vessels themselves were fired red. So it was clear that fire had been used extensively inside these structures. And he found inside the pottery vessels, burned grains. This residue, black residue that had grains of wheat, specifically emmer wheat inside. And he proposed, because there was no evidence from any other side at that time, about what this really was used for. He proposed that, well they may have been using heat to dry the grain, to make it able to be stored for a longer time without spoiling. And that was a reasonable suggestion, given the evidence that he had.
But when Pete finished, the work really stopped at the site because of the war. And no one came back there again to that part of the site. And part of it had been covered over by Pete himself, and the rest just filled in with windblown sand. And in the many years since then, the exact location was forgotten. We knew the general part of the site where it was, but exactly where, we did not know. And so when I started thinking about coming back and doing more work at the brewery, we had a magnetic survey done. So a magnetometer makes a map reading differences, variability in the way the Earth’s magnetic field flows through whatever’s in the ground, this can be measured. And by doing that, you can make a map of the buried features. And so in doing that, we could see the tombs that Pete had found. And so we knew if we re-excavated the tombs, the brewery would be there nearby. So that’s exactly what we did. We knew where the tombs were, we re-excavated the tombs in 2018 and immediately it became clear that we were also at the brewery, the tombs were built directly on top. And several of these brewery structures that Pete had found were exposed already in our first year of work.
And so, what we have been aiming to do, we want to understand, first of all, how big the brewery really is. Pete says he saw eight of these structures. Is that all? Were there more? So we’re still looking to answer that question. So far, we found seven of Pete’s eight, but also Pete did not find the ends of any single structure. And with this, we’ve been successful. In our most recent season, earlier in 2022, we did find the ends of a couple of the structures. And so they’re around 35 meters in length, which means that each one of them contains around 90 of these pottery vats. And the pottery vats are used to hold, to contain the ground grain and water mixture that is cooked in the mashing stage of production. And the structures that contain these vats are essentially giant cookers, giant ovens. They were built such that the interiors of the vats are protected from the fire. They’re a bit insulated on the outside. And the open tops were at the same level as the roof of the structure. So the interiors of the buildings were giant fire boxes that were filled with wood fuel and set alight. And the grain water mixture could be put inside the pottery vessels from above, from outside the structures and then cooked and then removed when the process was complete. And so this has been a very important aspect of our work in not only working out really the full scale of production, which we’re beginning to get a handle on, but also looking much more closely at the production process. How these facilities were actually being used. How they would have been putting the liquid in the vessels, how they would have been taking it out again. How they were fueling and firing the buildings. And so for that, we’re trying to locate parts of the structures that Pete did not excavate. So that we have everything that survived from the ancient beer-making process still there for us to find, and for us to investigate. And here also we’ve been successful. We have several major sections of some of these buildings that were untouched by Pete. So there we have the parts of the roof that have collapsed. Still there. We can see that. We can see how the roof was constructed. We have the surviving tops of the pottery vats in which the mash was cooked. In this we can see how covers were attached to the tops of the vessels to keep dust and other contaminants out during the production process. So we’re learning a tremendous amount about how that process actually happened on the ground. And so we’re very lucky in that in that regard. So but we have to be very careful during excavation to try and distinguish between those parts of the site that Pete already excavated and those parts that he didn’t. Because he didn’t publish a map of the brewery structures. And so we have to go based on our own excavations to tell the difference. But when the fallen roof bits are still there, that’s a good sign. It tells us that Pete didn’t remove them. And where they’re not there, this tells us where Pete worked.
Markus Raupach: And it’s really very interesting to follow. It’s really like a movie to hear what you’re explaining.
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: Yes, archaeology always is a bit like detective work. It’s a kind of detective work. And so you can think about it a bit like a detective novel, or a detective film, those old black and white films from the 1950s or so of the detective smoking a cigarette and wandering the streets in the dark, looking for evidence, this sort of thing. Well, in a way, we’re not wandering in the dark, hopefully. But in a way we’re trying to read the clues that survive, and put the clues together to build a picture of what was happening there. And to try to answer not only what was happening, but to begin to build some understanding of why this was happening. Why is it there at Abydos? Why would they have been making beer it at such an unbelievable scale of production? Why would they have viewed that as important or necessary? In a way, if they’re making, say 50,000 litres per batch, per production cycle, I mean, this is a huge amount of beer, even by modern standards. It’s enough beer to give half a litre to every person in a football stadium that has a hundred thousand seats. And this it’s hard to wrap your mind around this that this is happening five thousand years ago. And a few weeks ago, I was in Paris at a conference of people who work in Egypt and study the earliest periods, the exact period when our brewery was being used. And I presented about this work, and every one, they accept the evidence. I mean, the evidence is very clear what’s happening. But they’re all scratching their heads, as am I, about how could it be? How could this be? Because it seems so unbelievable. I don’t know what the normal production volume might be for, let’s say, local or regional craft brewing in Germany. But I do know that over the summer I was talking to the manager of a craft brewery in New York, and he said that their production cycle, they were looking at about 35,000 litres. So our production five thousand years ago was greater than a modern craft brewery in New York today. And he was really, he was scratching his head. The reaction is the same from everyone. How could this be? How could they be doing it? And I guarantee you it was not with assistance from aliens. But there may be people who want to look at it in that way. But I can assure you that it’s very much connected to the ground there at Abydos. And the explanation is part of the overall picture of what’s happening at the site at that time.
Markus Raupach: I think we come back to details in a second. Just one word, I think the normal German craft brewery or even the traditional ones here in the countryside, they have maybe 150. So the Egyptian brewery was 50 times bigger than those. So that’s really, really a very, very much bigger size, especially if you think five thousand years ago.
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: So you’re talking about a thousand litres per batch.
Markus Raupach: Yes, that’s the normal size we have in our smaller normal breweries, even the local ones, the older ones. So that’s the traditional normal size.
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: Wow. Oh, my God. So that really makes the situation at Abydos shocking.
Markus Raupach: Especially because these breweries are still serving maybe five thousand, ten thousand people in their region. And so it’s really, it’s fascinating. But I have one question before. You talked about Pete and his excavation. Did he already assume that there is a brewery? Or was he still on the more or less corn preserving idea? And how did you come to the idea that it’s a brewery reading his sources? Or making the first excavations? Or when did you have the decision that you go back to his work?
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: So this is an important question. So Pete, nothing like this had ever been found in Egypt at his time. And this is why he struggled a lot to come up with, if you read his report, he really was struggling to come up with an explanation as to what this was. And he admits that well, this is the best I can propose. But reading him you feel like, perhaps he wasn’t even 100% convinced of his own argument. But what happened was that in the 1970s, and 80s, work at another very important early site in southern Egypt, a site called Hyracomplice, it’s a bit south of modern Luxor which is one of the big tourist destinations in Egypt. And we’re just a bit north of modern Luxor. At ancient Hyracomplice beginning in the 70s, the archaeologists working there began to find very similar features to our vat installations. They would find clusters of these vats, in one case, six, in another case, there were 16, and they have three or four locations around their site in the desert where there was evidence of this type of production, whatever it was. They also had residues inside the vessels and unlike Pete, they had modern technology to look at the residues under a normal optical microscope. They could also look at it under electron microscopy and really see individual starch grains in the residue and this sort of thing. And they found evidence of both fermentation, the way that the starch grains had been altered, they could see evidence for fermentation and the type of cooking, the ingredients that were in evidence. Based on the analysis of these residues, it was clear that they were making a grain-based fermented beverage. And so what is the main grain-based fermented beverage that we know of in the world, and that’s beer. And in later times in ancient Egypt, beer making is something that is shown, it’s depicted very commonly in the art. Whenever you have scenes of daily life in the tombs of officials and nobles, it shows all the activities on their estates. One thing that always shows up is making bread. Another thing that always shows up is making beer, raising cattle, harvesting fruit, various things. And all of this was by being shown on the walls of the tomb, magically, this would provide the dead person with all the food and so on that he would need in the next world. But it emphasizes how important beer making was in the daily life of ancient Egyptians. It was right at the center of things, just like making bread. And so the evidence from this excavation at other early sites in the 70s and 80s, when they proved without any question at all that these kinds of vat installations were used for beer making, that then led to a new understanding of what we had it at Abydos from Pete’s old work. But Pete’s work was limited in scope and it was published in a very, good for its time, but in a kind of summary way. And many more questions needed to be answered. And it was also clear that what we seemed to have at Abydos was bigger than anything at other similarly early sites. And having worked for many years at these royal funerary temples at Abydos, which are of about the same time as the brewery, it was a natural extension of my existing research to then turn to the brewery and say, okay, what is this and how is it connected to the evidence that we see from the royal temples, from the royal tomb, tombs and so on? And this is how I came to it. I came to it not initially of coming from the perspective of researching ancient beer, but rather I was coming to it from the question of what role did this brewery have in what Egypt’s first kings were doing at Abydos? How was it part of this bigger picture of early royal activity at the site? But of course, it doesn’t matter. What was the question I was asking initially, when we start excavating and suddenly we’re presented with an industrial scale brewery bigger than anything known from the ancient world anywhere? Well, I have to also then broaden my thinking and the questions that I’m asking to begin to have a better understanding of beer making itself. Not just how the brewery may have related to the temples, but we have to understand the brewery itself and how it worked and how it was being used and the different activities that were connected to it. And in doing that, it’s tremendously satisfying because not only are we able to make a really important contribution to understanding the very beginning of ancient Egyptian history and what the early Egyptians were capable of doing, but it also really enriches my original research in terms of getting a much better understanding of what was happening at the site overall when the early kings were active there. So there’s a kind of multiple dimensions to the importance of the work, at least for me.
Markus Raupach: And it also brings us to the question, of course, if they produced such a tremendous amount of beer, for whom? So who drank all these beer ready to go to?
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: Well, this is the part of the question, why. Why are they making beer at this scale? What are they doing with 50,000 liters per production cycle per batch? And was there, for example, something like what we see at the pyramids? Which are just a few generations after the monuments and the kings that we have at Abydos, the great pyramids that everyone goes to visit when they go to Cairo today. Another project in Egypt, led by Dr. Mark Lehner, has for many years been excavating the city where the officials and workers who were involved in actual construction of the pyramids, lived. And so these thousands of people that were involved, they were being fed, housed, and maintained there. And so we have barracks where the regular workers lived, we have larger houses where the officials lived. We have gigantic bread bakeries where they were baking the bread to feed everyone. We have huge granaries where the grain was stored by the officials, by the administration of the town that was then being used for the bread. They don’t have breweries, yet. They’re there somewhere, but they haven’t found them yet. So at Abydos then are we looking at this brewery existing to support the personnel of a big building project or royal building project? Do we have a workforce of thousands of people living there somewhere? This seems unlikely, because none of the constructions that are at Abydos are anything close to the scale of the pyramids at Giza, which are almost superhuman, well they are superhuman in scale. And so there’s no evidence for a gigantic construction project that would require anything like that number of people to be involved. And the evidence that we do have is all of these huge deposits of empty beer jars at the royal temples. Well, were they having great feasts in the temples where drinking beer was an important part of the feasting? One might expect that. In fact, at some of the other early sites like Hyracomplice, which is a few hundred years earlier than Abydos, there the emergence of these breweries that could produce a few hundred or up to a thousand litres per batch, there it does seem to be connected to the development or the emergence of local elite people in the local community, and some kind of elite sponsorship of communal events, religious festivals, feasting, something like this. If the elite are controlling this process, it would have been a way for them to do things for the local community that would bind the community to them. It would reinforce their elite status. At Abydos, the scale is far beyond community level production. In fact, the figures that you mentioned in traditional breweries there in Germany of producing around a thousand liters, that’s in line, it’s very similar, to what we have for community-level brewing in early Egypt. It’s remarkable actually how similar it is. But at Abydos, we have something else entirely. And I think that the answer is in these gigantic deposits that we find at the royal temples because we have evidence for the use of thousands and thousands of litres of beer. It might not be the only use, but it’s the evidence we have for now. And in all of that, we have not a single drinking cup. We know exactly what drinking cups looked like. We have them, they survived from other contexts. And in fact, we had one that we found at the brewery that the brewer clearly was tasting a batch, and he dropped the cup into the vat and never retrieved it. It may have been the last batch that was ever made in that particular vat and there it was. It fits perfectly in your hand, it’s very comfortable to hold, and it has about the same volume as a modern drinking glass that you would have at your table for breakfast or dinner. None of that. Not one. And if we were looking at feasting and drinking as part of feasting, we should have discarded plates and drinking cups, the things that we know the Egyptians used for eating and drinking. And we do not, they’re not there. All we have is the large, heavy vessels that the beer was put into when it was finished. And that these are the vessels in which it was transported and stored. These vessels are too heavy and too large to use for drinking purposes. But we have thousands of them that have been opened, the stopper has been removed. The stopper was made out of fine clay put on the top and that’s been broken and removed and then the contents have been used, but not drunk. Which seems strange, a mystery really. But we know that in Egyptian religion, one of the most important rituals that took place was the presentation of offerings of food and drink among other things, burning incense and so on, but the presentation of offerings of food and drink to the gods. This was the primary thing that happened inside ancient Egyptian temples. The priests would come and they would make offerings to the image of the god in the very back sanctuary of the temple to keep the gods satisfied. And if the god was appropriately served and was kept satisfied, then the god would look after the world of human beings properly and protect them. And so the context of these early royal, funerary temples, this is what they’re doing. They’re making offerings probably to the king, because he was a divine figure himself. He was not a normal human being. He was a human occupant of a divine office, a kingship and so was himself worthy of adoration and worship, like the gods. And when he died, he became a full-fledged god and needed to be sustained in the next world by the presentation of offerings, just like a regular god did. And so I think this is what’s happening. I think that all of these thousands and thousands of empty beer containers, they were being used to pour out the beer as offerings to the divine king, both while he was still living and after his death. And because this is, we don’t have evidence for any other kind of use. This is what the evidence suggests.
Markus Raupach: And this is even more tremendous I think, if you think what huge part of their production in general, I think they used just for producing offerings. So all these raw materials, all these resources, all the people, all the workforce, just for producing offerings. And it must have been a big part of the whole population at this time. So how did that work in the Egyptian society? Have they been so rich?
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: Well yes, exactly. This is the whole point. So if you think about what was building a pyramid? Well yes, it’s the tomb for the king, but it’s the tomb for the divine king. It’s the tomb for the king as a god. And the unbelievable hugeness of the pyramid is a way of telling the world, the world of living people, what the king was. Of a way of expressing his nature, defining his nature that they could, tens of thousands of people could be involved in the construction of these gigantic things for 10 or 20 or 30 years, just because the king wished it to happen. And I think this is exactly what we have at Abydos at the beginning of Egyptian history. I think that this level of production is happening because the king wished it to be so. And Egypt was rich enough, the king was rich enough, having the whole wealth of the Nile Valley, the whole wealth of the whole society at his disposal, this was no problem. He wants to receive offerings at the same level as a god or even more than other gods, it’s no problem. He orders it and it happens. And I think that it’s exactly the same thing as building a pyramid. And this is the first evidence that we have in all of ancient Egyptian history for this kind of royal power, where the king can simply say, I want this to happen. Something on a gigantic scale. And it does. And by that happening, the king is telling everybody who he is, the nature of his power. And I think it’s not a coincidence that we see this for the first time, at the very moment that ancient Egyptian civilization coalesces. It’s when everything that we think about for what ancient Egypt was, with the king as the central point, the most powerful institution in all the civilization, that emerges, it crystallizes exactly at the same time when these early kings begin building monumental tombs for themselves at Abydos, the monumental funerary temples and then a monumental brewery to support the rituals that were happening in these temples. The whole thing is a gigantic royal project to send the message of who the king is and his position in ancient Egyptian society. The Egyptians knew very well, because they baked bread at home, they could brew beer at home. We know that they did. I, myself have excavated the houses of ancient Egyptians from a little bit later time, around 2000 BC. And there are the kitchens in every house, bread oven, beer making, it’s right there. And so the Egyptians knew very well the kind of production that was involved in making bread or making beer for your family, even an extended family with grandparents and grandchildren, and cousins, and so on, people living together. But then, in comparison, they would have seen what the king was doing just a couple of hundred meters from their town, many of them were probably employed in these royal works. And like a pyramid, it would have seemed superhuman. They’re making a hundred litres or fifty litres per batch or something like this. The king is making 50,000. The king is something else entirely from the rest of society. And I think that was right at the point when the kingship emerged as the sort of central institution in ancient Egypt at the top of a state administration. This is exactly when we see this happening with these temples and the brewery, and so on. And I think it all hangs together as these royal projects are being used to express by the king, the nature of who he was. Not the nature of who he wanted to be, or how he saw himself, just like the pyramids did a bit later. So in a sense, the brewery is the beginning of the great royal tradition of these mega projects that culminated a few generations later in the pyramids.
Markus Raupach: Really very impressive. And I’m just thinking, is there any evidence of the logistics of how they brought all these grains and water and firewood and whatever, to this place? Is there something you found or something written or something?
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: Well, at this early time, we don’t really have written documents. Writing existed and they used it for administrative purposes. And we do have writing that survives as labels on things on pottery vessels and so on. But we don’t have account documents that do survive from a bit later on papyrus where deliveries are being recorded, oh, so many sacks of grain and so many this and so many that. Or these workers were paid X amount of bread and beer and vegetables and so on and so forth, as their wages. We have those documents from later periods. But from this early time, we do not. And we can only look at the processes that we know, we can observe them, the end results, let’s say. We can observe that hardwood was being cut and transported to the site for the fuel. Now, Egypt today is very poor in wood. And the wood that they do have is bad quality, palm trees. You can’t do much with stringy palm wood. But here, they have such quantities of wood available, that this is the fuel that they’re burning up in vast amounts to fire these breweries. Where would the wood have grown? Well, it didn’t grow in the desert where the brewery is. It grew down in the floodplain of the river in the parts of the Nile valley that were less populated, where they didn’t have agricultural fields. So it would have meant going some distance away from the town of Abydos into more undeveloped areas where wood was growing wild. Cutting it, transporting it back would have been some, I don’t know, 10, 20 kilometers. It’s difficult to say exactly, but something like that. They only had two means of well, three really, three means of transport. One is human beings carrying things. They had donkeys as pack animals. And they had boats. So the most likely scenario is that the wood was cut, loaded on some kind of small boat and brought back on the river and then probably some canals had been dug to connect the site to the main watercourse of the river today. It’s about 10 kilometres away. But in ancient times it was closer than that. We know that from geological studies. But it would have been the same thing for the grain. Huge volumes of beer require huge volumes of emmer, which is the main grain that they were using. That means giant fields out in the floodplain of the river that had to be planted, irrigated, maintained, then the grain harvested when it was ripe. The grain had to be processed, it had to be ground. There’s the transport from the fields. There’s the winnowing of the grain. There is the grinding of the grain that has to happen and you think about thousands of litres of beer, that’s thousands of litres of grain as well. All of this has to be ground. The technology they had for that was grinding it on stones, hard sandstone and quartzite grinders. We have them that survived in ancient Egyptian houses. We know exactly what they looked like. And a person is there rubbing this one stone on top of another to grind the grain and they’re collecting the ground grain at one end.
Likewise, with the water that was needed. This could be if they dug a water channel close to the site, this would be a source of water. To our knowledge, they weren’t digging wells at this time. It would have been perfectly easy to bring water by small canals to the site, and they were very skilled at digging canals already by this time. But yes, you’re absolutely right. Tremendous logistics involved in all of this. And so then you have to think about the tens of thousands of pottery vessels that were required to take the finished beer. The bottles basically had to be manufactured. And so somewhere close to this brewery, there has to be a huge pottery workshop where these vessels were being manufactured. It’s probably not in the town itself, because it would have been a very polluting, all the firing of the kilns and so on would have been a very polluting process. So it probably is somewhere in the desert near the brewery so that the smoke and so on would have been away from the houses. It would be wonderful if we could locate this at some point. And I would like to do some exploratory work to try to do just that. That would be fantastic. But that would also have been a huge industrial scale operation. So hundreds of people would have been involved as the personnel of this brewery to make it happen. And you need administrators to coordinate and keep track of all of that. And this is all thinking about the implications of the evidence that we have, and drawing on depictions in later periods from tomb walls and so on where we see the processes taking place in beer making, and pottery making and so on. And there are always administrators, there are always officials that are right there keeping track of what’s happening and writing down the quantities of the materials that are involved. They’re shown doing this. And this almost certainly was part of our work, or the work at our brewery, but the documents would have been on organic materials like papyrus that don’t survive. I would love to come across some things that, notes that were made on a pot shirt or a rock, which they did sometimes. But until now we haven’t done anything like that.
Markus Raupach: But maybe you will.
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: I certainly hope so. I certainly hope so.
Markus Raupach: Maybe we come to a few words about the beer itself. So you said we have water and we have emmer. Is there any other ingredient which we know about?
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: We know from the analysis of beer at the other early sites, it’s mainly emmer and water with some low levels of environmental additives that were probably not deliberately put in, but rather just contaminants that are in the environment. And because it was not a sterile process, this is all out in the open air, things would have just blown in. Field weed, pieces of field weeds and things that are blowing in the wind would have been in the environment and would have inevitably made it into the beer. We’re still waiting on the results of the analysis of our residues to know all of the constituents. We do know from residues much later, let’s say 1500 years later or so, that various fruit was sometimes, various kinds of fruits were added to beer both as sweeteners for taste purposes, but also to increase the sugar content. Because if you increase the sugar, this will increase the alcohol content as well. The beer that was being made at Abydos probably was quite low in alcohol content. Beer was viewed as much as a food, as nutrition as it was a social or religious or ceremonial beverage. It was both. It had a high nutritional content as well as an alcohol content that was mind altering for religious purposes. But in later times, they added for example, dates, dried dates, which are very sweet and have a particular taste and this would have made the beer sweet and it also would have increased the alcohol content considerably during fermentation. So that later sweet beer would have packed a considerable punch. We can’t say exactly what the alcohol content would have been. But we can estimate based on these various additives and the nature of the process. So, the beer itself at our time seems to be just primarily grain and water. But the grain was divided into two components. One was just grain that was ground, coarsely ground, but then another half of the grain would have been wet and allowed to sprout. And then the sprouted grain would be ground. And this then mixed with the other portion of the ground grain, and that introduces malt. The sprouted grain is malt and the malt creates enzymes that alter the starch grains that are released during mashing and creates sugars chemically, that are then, that’s what the sugars are then consumed by the yeast in fermentation. And we do not know for sure yet about the yeast. We’re working with beer scientists from the Technical University of Munich and we hope to be able to do DNA analysis of yeast that survived in our samples, to identify the species. And from that, we should be able to tell if this is a yeast that’s just wild in the environment and comes into the beer naturally from the environment or if it’s a domesticated yeast strain that is controlled and artificially introduced into the beer-making process by the brewers. We don’t know that yet.
Markus Raupach: But it would be another sensation if you ever find something like that.
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: Absolutely. And it’s very possible that the strain of yeast that existed, that was being used at that time is a strain that no longer exists living in the world. And there is some possibility of being able to, depending on how well the yeast survived, being able to reanimate these yeast strains and use them in modern production. Find out what are the characteristics that come to beer from this particular strain of yeast. Different yeast strains produce beer with different characteristics, different flavor profile, and so on. And so what were the characteristics of beer from using this particular yeast once we’re able to identify it. And there are a lot of what ifs here. And it may be that the samples are so old that the yeast do not survive, and we can’t either identify them or reanimate them. But we’re certainly hoping to try. This is part of the long-term research program. And in all of this, I hope to be able to do two things. One is identify from the different scientific analyses of the residues, identify the ingredients basically, and their proportions and the processes that they were affected by, so that we know the recipe for the beer. And then I would like to try and reproduce the beer using the ancient original method. That’s number one. But then, I would also like to try to use the same ingredients in the same proportion, but according to modern methods of sanitation and so on, to see what just the basic recipe would taste like to a modern palate. I imagine that it would taste quite different than anything that most people would have had today. First of all, there were no hops in ancient Egypt. Hops don’t come, I believe, until medieval times. And so right there, the bitterness that’s so characteristic of modern beers is absent. So already, I think the ancient beer would have been quite a bit sweet to a modern sensibility without that hoppiness. Secondly, the carbonation from fermentation was probably less, because it was impossible to seal anything completely. Nothing in the production process could be sealed, tightly closed. So it would not have been possible to force the carbon dioxide to stay in suspension in the liquid. It would have bled off. So the beer would not have been very carbonated or very foamy the way many beers are today. It would have been maybe only slightly fizzy and slightly foamy, which is characteristic of some modern beers. But then what the overall experience of drinking the beer would have been like with this probably slight sweetness and the sort of flatness of it, I think we just have to wait and try to make it and see. But the ancient Egyptians certainly had a taste for it. And this is, there’s no doubt about that. Beer was central to their lived experience. It was central to every household, the daily life of every person from the poorest villager up to the nobility and the high officials and the royal court and the king himself. Everyone would have been drinking beer. It would have been a shared experience at all levels of society. Much more so than is the case in modern society. Not everyone is a beer drinker and certainly, for most people, beer is probably not part of their routine, daily experience. But for the ancient Egyptians, it was.
Markus Raupach: They even started the days with a beer as far as I know. And I’m really looking forward. Maybe we have a day when we can try or have a beer together, a rebrewed beer.
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: I certainly hope so. I certainly hope so.
Markus Raupach: I just have two more questions, then we’re done.
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: Okay, all right.
Markus Raupach: I hope you still have the time.
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: No, no, no problem.
Markus Raupach: One is about the process. So you already mentioned the vats and that we have the mixture of the water and the grain, and also something like a malt. And so I think as in other ancient cultures, the saccharification and the fermentation happened at the same moment. But do you know more in general about the process? So they brought the mixture of water and grain into these vats and then they cooked it or heated it? But what happened before and after? Do we know anything about that?
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: Yes. So we know, we’ll know more, of course, about our brewery process when we get the results of the residue analysis. But we know a lot about the process from work at other sites. And so when the liquid was put in the vats then the insides of the brewery structures around all the vats would have been set on fire. They’d been stuffed with wood fuel and set on fire. The wood fire itself would have exhausted the fuel in a rather short time. However, all of the materials of the structure itself, which were all made out of fired mud, like bricks, would have absorbed the heat of the fire and would have retained that heat for quite a long time. And so they didn’t necessarily need to keep the fire going constantly for the entire cooking process. Maybe they just renewed the fire once or twice, but not continuously keeping the fire going inside because of the heat that would have been retained by the structure itself. The temperature was not extremely high. We have no evidence for vitrification of silica, so we don’t see evidence for the melting of ceramics or the melting of sand. It’s discoloured orange and red, but that’s all. So it was not a high temperature intensive firing process. It was low and slow. We don’t know the exact time that it was allowed to cook. We could probably figure this out doing experiments in trying to recreate the ancient process. But the liquid was cooked by the firing of these fire boxes, these gigantic fire boxes that are 35 meters long and two, or two and a half meters wide, all being fired at one time. The liquid is cooked for an unknown amount of length of time. The insides of, the vats were covered with some kind of probably leather or wood, or basketry covering to keep contaminants out. Then it would have been allowed to cool down and ferment. Whether this involved a separate step of introducing yeast, or it just happened naturally from environmental yeast, we don’t know yet. But fermentation certainly happened in the same vats and the brewers would have had to carefully monitor the fermentation process, because if it went too far, the beer would be bad. It would spoil. So our brewer who had the drinking cup that he dropped in, was probably tasting to check the status of the fermentation process. And when it was complete, when it was at the right point, then it would be, the contents of the vats would be decanted, removed from the vats and put in these pottery bottles, these pottery beer jars. And there was about eight meters of empty ground between each of the structures. And these beer jars had pointed bases. So you could set them up in the sand. Just stick the pointed base in the sand and it would stay upright. And then you have some kind of container with the beer that you removed from the vat and you’re going down the line filling the beer jars. And someone is coming after putting stoppers, wet clay stoppers on the tops. And then these would be allowed to dry and harden. And then there it is, the stoppered beer jar. And at that point, it can be transported wherever. So if you were standing there looking at the site in ancient times, it would have been crawling with people. Because there would have been people bringing up the wood fuel and stuffing it in the holes that were arranged up and down both sides of the structures for access to the interior. You would have had the people coming and putting the liquid mixture in the vats. Putting covers on. Taking the stuff out afterwards, lining up the beer jars to receive the finished product. Stoppering them. Stockpiling them somewhere off to the side while you’re getting ready for the next cycle of production. Somewhere nearby, there would have been a staging area for the sacks of grain, for the wood fuel being piled up. ready for use. So there would have been dozens or hundreds of people crawling all over the site at all times and it would have been a very, very busy context, very busy situation. We do not know how often a production cycle happened. Did it happen once a month? Did it happen every week? Did it happen just a couple of times a year? We really do not know. We do know that the brewery structures were used for quite a period of time because there is evidence of use and repair to different parts. So they were continuing to use them over a length of time. Exactly what that length of time and frequency, we can’t say yet. But there is evidence of an extended period of use and repeated uses of the same brewery structures.
One thing that we hope to be able to do, we did find charcoal, wood charcoal, that is the burnt remains of wood and we’re having this dated at a dating lab in Cairo. And that will give us approximate year dates, approximate age for the different wood samples. And that would give us some time range. The youngest samples, the oldest samples that would tell us the period of use that the whole facility was experienced. It appears that the whole facility was built as one project the way that the structures are aligned, they’re all the same length, they’re all the same layout, they’re all equally distant from one another, they’re oriented in parallel. All of this suggests it was built according to a preconceived plan from the beginning. But were all of the individual structures fired up for production at the same time? Or were they used sequentially, one after another? We might be able to tell something about that from for example, weed species that are present in the vats in different structures, in residues in different structures. This one is being used at this time of year, the one down here is being used at a different time of year, based on the weed species that are present or pollen that is present. So there’s still a lot to learn about the details of the process. In many respects, we’re just at the beginning of understanding what this place was and how it worked.
Markus Raupach: That’s really interesting and already, I’m very curious about the results of the dating process. Do you have an idea? What would you guess at the moment? What was the annual production capacity?
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: Well, if I can tell, we can guess as to the maximum. So based on what we know about how long it takes to ferment, and so on, there have been estimates made that one production cycle could be about one week. So theoretically, we could have 50 or 52 production cycles per year. Well, if each production cycle is 50,000 litres times 50. This is 2,500,000 litres per year, annual production. It may not have been that intense. Maybe it was once a month. It may depend also on how frequently the rituals were being performed in these royal temples nearby. And we also plan to do analysis of residues from the empty beer jars to gain an understanding of the beer that was actually being used there. First of all, does the recipe match the recipe of what the brewery is making? That’s the first question. Secondly, what do we see in residues there that might tell us about time of year that it was bottled and this sort of thing? And then how does that align with what we see at the production site? So there’s still a lot of different lines of evidence to bring together to understand the whole process. It’s some years more of work and it will depend on our different kinds of analysis and the range of different scientists that are collaborating in the project. But I hope that we can, in the end, really define very well the nature of the beer production, all the different aspects of what went into it, what the beer looked like, what the beer tasted like, what the beer smelled like. And then if we’re able to do that, that is certainly something that I would hope to be able to share with the world, share with the beer community, especially. It may not be something that would be commercially viable. But it might be something possible to do in small batches, and have some kind of tasting events for the beer community, in which the different characteristics of the beer could be analyzed and discussed from the drinker’s perspective.
Markus Raupach: I really can promise you, we will love that. We will celebrate that. That will be fantastic. So really looking forward to this.
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: That would be really the piece de la resistance. That would really be the icing on the cake we would say in English, of this entire project, to be able to taste that. And for me as an archaeologist of studying ancient Egypt to be able to experience myself this thing that all ancient Egyptians experienced. It was part of the fabric of their life. This is what Egyptologists dream about, being able to really understand ancient Egyptian life and so this would make it do that in a very personal direct way. And to have also the perspective of people who understand beer much better than I do, contributing to the understanding of this experience, would make it even better, just from my own personal perspective. So I certainly hope and look forward to being able to share that with you.
Markus Raupach: And I’m also looking forward very much to that moment. And I think I will always remember that. That brings me to my very, very last question, I promise.
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: Sure.
Markus Raupach: How was the reaction of the scientific world, but also the journalist of the normal people when you told them the results of your excavation, your findings? How did they react on that?
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: Oh well this was a very big surprise to me and also to my university. So about one and a half years ago, we, together with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, released a story, a news announcement to the press, the international press, about the work at the brewery and the results up to that point. And it was something of a sensation. In a period of just a few days, I was being contacted by journalists from all over the world for interviews, for written comments. I was on BBC Radio, I was on radio in New Zealand, I was on radio in Colombia. I don’t remember all the places that I spoke to and the various newspapers that covered it. Television, news programs that covered it. It was all over the internet. And it was written up in a number of very prominent international newspapers. Le Monde in France and Frankfurter Allgemeine I think in Germany, at least. This is one that I knew about, and very prominent magazines and journals. There was a big article in Food and Wine Magazine, it’s a very popular one here in the United States for the sort of gourmet community. And this was publicity like I had not experienced before in my career. I’ve been involved in various TV productions, documentaries, and have had some newspaper stories that have come out, articles in New York Times, probably the most important paper here in the United States. National Geographic magazine is another one. But nothing like this level of interest. And it was really an eye-opening experience for me. There are lots of people who are interested in archaeology and ancient history and the ancient world. And this is a normal audience for someone like me. But I was talking to a much bigger audience with this story than I had ever talked to before. And people who would not normally probably be so interested in some archaeological discoveries in Egypt. But when beer is involved, this is something completely different. Because beer is something that so many people can relate to. It’s part of their own experience. They like beer. They like different kinds of beer. They’re interested in beer culture and beer history. And so when suddenly, there’s a big announcement of a gigantic brewery, the first known like this anywhere in the world, this brought a lot of interest from a non-traditional audience, let’s put it that way, for archaeology. And it’s been a tremendous pleasure for me to be able to engage with this broader audience and to be able to share something of our work with the beer community, in particular, and to hear their questions and what aspects of this are of interest to them. And to have the beer perspective on our results and our work, it’s really enriching for me, and a great deal of fun. I really have enjoyed it and have learned a lot from having this broader engagement. And so I’m looking forward very much to being able to continue to share the results as they develop with it. So I would say that for me, as a scholar, personally, this has been a transformative experience for this reason that suddenly, the audience and the level of interest is much bigger than it would have been for a normal kind of, what you might call a normal, more normal kind of archaeology story.
Markus Raupach: I think some things come together here because if you think of the craft beer movement, the craft beer culture, it’s more or less all about storytelling. And what you are delivering is a fantastic story and a great story, and a lot of history and also people I think are always looking for the roots, the history, all the stories behind. And now there is a really gigantic story behind and you can really have something very new, something very interesting and something which makes all the people curious. So maybe also beer gives a little bit back the love to you, then you give it to the beer when you drink it, let’s say like this. And so I really, thank you very much. This is I think, the longest BierTalk I ever did. But it’s so fascinating, so interesting.
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: Maybe you’ll need to edit or something to make it a more reasonable length. But that’s up to you. I’m very happy to be able to share with you.
Markus Raupach: I think that people will be as fascinated as I was. So I won’t cut a lot just to have this wonderful experience because you really also, you make like movies in the head of the people. So you see the brewery, you see the old Egyptian culture and that’s fantastic. And I think that’s something how history has to be told so that people really have it before their internal eyes.
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: Yes, I agree about that. Well, thank you. That’s very kind of you.
Markus Raupach: And thank you. So really, it has been a fantastic time. So thanks a lot. Thanks also to the listeners who now are almost two hours with us. And I’m looking forward. Maybe we have the next BierTalk live in Egypt having one of these beers and enjoying it and talking about it.
Dr. Matthew Douglas Adams: Oh that would be fantastic. I certainly hope so.
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