Declan, Billy and Nigel presented at a Seminar on ‘Experimental Archaeology in Northwest Europe: Principles and Potential’ in UCD last week. Our presentation was on the beer experiments and Fulacht Fiadh. Here’s some of Declan’s section of the presentation:

Fulachta fiadh are one of the most widespread of Irish field monuments and may number up to 5000. The site type is prevalent throughout the country. Typically the site comprises a low horseshoe-shaped mound and associated trough. Upon excavation the mound consists of charcoal-enriched soil and heat shattered stone with a slight depression at its centre showing the position of the pit. The name derives from Geoffrey Keating’s seventeenth century manuscript Foras Feasa ar Eirinn and as a complete term does not appear in any early manuscripts. Conventional wisdom, based largely on Professor M.J. O’Kelly’s 1952 experiments in Ballyvourney, Co. Cork suggests that they were used for cooking. John Waddell points out that ‘the fact that meat can be boiled in them does not prove that this was their main purpose’. Alternative theories that have been proposed include bathing, dyeing, fulling and tanning and butchery (recent work by Eachtra suggests that Boiling one cow could take up to 60 hours…  Based on a 200lb cow and and 20 mins per pound).

Whatever their use, it is, however, generally agreed that their primary function was to heat water by depositing fired stones into a water-filled trough.


There’s no argument that people were drinking beer throughout the world in prehistory. As Pete Brown says in Man Walks into a Pub, ‘even elephants eat fermenting berries deliberately to get p*****d and we are much more cleverer than them [sic]’. The natural history of animal inebriation has been documented anecdotally (Dennis, 1987; Dudley, 2000), but has received little scientific attention. There is evidence from around the world of animals experiencing drunkenness as a result of consuming overripe fruit containing yeast (producing ethanol) resulting, unsurprisingly, in inebriation…

Indeed, what may have been drunken behaviour by Howler Monkey’s in Panama’s Barro Colorado Island was observed by Dustin Stephens, leading Stephens and Robert Dudley of the University of California, Berkeley, to the preliminary conclusion that ‘preference for and excessive consumption of alcohol by modern humans might accordingly result from pre-existing sensory biases associating ethanol with nutritional reward’. Put simply, the so-called Drunken Monkey Hypothesis suggests that natural selection favoured primates with a heightened sense of smell for psychoactive ethanol, indicative of ripe fruit, who would thus have been more successful in obtaining nutritious fruit! The howler monkeys were observed ingesting the equivalent of about 10 standard measures (or 2 bottles of 12% ABV wine) in 20 mins…. Malaysian tree shres have a similar penchant for fermented palm nectar, often being observed lapping up the equivalent of 9 glasses of wine in a session…

In other experiments, chimps given access to a ‘free bar’ will initially drink to excess, before settling into a more restrained pattern – but still consuming enough to ensure that they remain in a permanent state of drunkenness. On the other hand, rats demonstrate more familiar patterns of consumption, with a colony congregating around their ‘free bar’ drinking hole just before feeding time (an aperitif perhaps) and for a nightcap just before crashing out for the night… Notably, every 3-4 days they will gather for more than the usual – binge drinking in rats…

Dietary diversification has characterized human evolution in the last two million years (Eaton et al, 1997; Milton, 1999; Sponheimer and Lee-Thorp, 1999), but fruit consumption likely remained an important feature of the human diet until the Neolithic advent of agriculture. So gorging on energy rich sugars and alcohol was an excellent solution for surviving what was often a resource poor and hostile environment. Although there is scant evidence of alcohol consumption in the Paleolithic period, this is undoubetly the period when man began to experiment and avidly consume alcoholic beverages, probably in the form of fermented fruit juices.  Early hunter-gatherers had an intimate knowledge of the environment around them and the effects of naturally occurring intoxicants, but the discovery of fermentation may simply have been a happy accident involving overripe fruit. Pat McGovern pictures with his ‘Paleolithic hypothesis’ – someone with an eye for brightly coloured fruit and a taste for sugar and resultant alcohol.

However, as agriculture took root, barley and wheat became plentiful, which in turn provided good substrates for beer or ale. Recent chemical analyses of residues in pottery jars from a Neolithic village Northern China revealed evidence of a mixed fermented beverage made up of rice and berries  from as early as 9,000 years ago. Evidence for the production of beer in the Middle East from modern day Iran and Iraq. There’s also evidence of beer from ancient Egypt. The world’s earliest written recipe, a Sumerian cuneiform tablet the Hymn to Ninkasi dating to 1800 BC, describes the brewing of beer. Clear chemical evidence for brewing in Sumeria at Godin Tepe (in modern day Iran) comes from fermentation vessels where there were pits in the ground noted by the excavators (ref) – 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’

In northwestern Europe there is evidence of Neolithic brewing at Balbridie in Scotland, and at Machrie Moor, Arran. Based on the high-status drinking vessels characteristic of the Beaker culture it has even been suggested that these people traded in some sort of alcoholic beverage and may have been high-status drinking vessels. These ancient ‘wild’ beers would have been spontaneously fermented by particular combinations of local wild yeasts and microorganisms as well as local plant and herb flavourings. In all likelihood they may have been somewhat tart, sour and acidic in taste, more like the Lambic beers of Belgium or contemporary Flanders red brown ales, the only modern commercial ales which rely on spontaneous fermentation.

In Ireland, the first known reference to beer is in 1 CE, when Dioscorides refers to ‘kourmi’ although Max Nelson relates this as a reference to Britain. Much later, Patrick appears with ‘the priest Mescan… his friend and his brewer’. Perhaps unsurprisingly Patrick considers his friend and brewer to be ‘without evil’.

As Zythophile points out in the blog ‘Zythophile’, ale was an important part of Irish society. The Crith-Gablach, for example, declared that the “seven occupations in the law of a king” were:

“Sunday, at ale drinking, for he is not a lawful flaith [lord] who does not distribute ale every Sunday; Monday, at legislation, for the government of the tribe; Tuesday, at fidchell [a popular Iron Age board game]; Wednesday, seeing greyhounds coursing; Thursday, at the pleasures of love; Friday, at horse-racing; Saturday, at judgment.”

Sundays and Tuesdays must have been particularly taxing.

The following jumped out and we were surprised we hadn’t noticed it:

“A record of a fire at the monastry of Clonard… around AD787 speaks of grain stored in ballenio, literally “in a bath”, which seems to mean the grain being soaked as part of the initial processes of malting.”

Zythophile suggests that what St. Brigid drew off may have been water from the ballenium where the grain was steeping in the first stage of malt-making. One could take a giant leap and suggest that this was early Irish Sahti!

So, if brewing and beer drinking was prevalent and widespread throughout The Levant and The Far East with growing evidence of the same from Late Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe and Britain, and given our prodigious reputation for alcohol consumption, our question is where and how did the Bronze Age people brew?

Which brings us to hot rock technology, fulachta fiadh and brewing…

For more on the theory just do a search here for ‘beer’ or select  the ‘about the beer’ section from the drop down menu top right and all our previous posts and publications will pop up….



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