Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Archaeometry of beer

What to write about on St. Patrick's Day? The archaeology of beer? How about an entry from Beer Radar, Joe Sixpack's blog? He had an amazing entry on Patrick McGovern, the "Indiana Jones of Beer." Unfortunately, McGovern was one of the University of Pennsylvania 18, recently laid off from the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

From the good old days at Penn:
circa 3500-3100 B.C.

Researchers in the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology (MASCA) at The University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, analyzed an organic residue from inside a pottery vessel dated circa 3500-3100 B.C. from the site of Godin Tepe in the Zagros Mountains of western Iran. Their findings provide the earliest known chemical evidence of beer in the world. Archaeological chemist Dr. Patrick E. McGovern and organic chemist Dr. Rudolph H. Michel carried out a chemical Feigl spot test on a pale yellowish residue that filled grooves within an ancient jug; the tests were positive for oxalate ion. The Feigl spot test is a standard chemical technique, though previously unemployed for this purpose. Calcium oxalate (the calcium salt from the oxalate ion) is a major component of "beerstone" and settles out on the surfaces of fermentation and storage tanks of barley beer, as the researchers believe occurred with the ancient residue.

Virginia R. Badler, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, noted the residue in the jug incisions while carrying out research on sherds from Godin Tepe in the collections of Canada's Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto. Recalling that the ancient Sumerian sign for beer is in the form of a pottery vessel with interior markings, she hypothesized that ROM's jug with the unusual interior incisions had been used for beer. With ROM's permission, tests were done on the pottery sherds in the laboratories of MASCA, proving her theory correct.

In 1991, Virginia Badler collaborated with Drs. McGovern and Michel for the first time, when the MASCA researchers tested and obtained chemical evidence of the earliest known wine from jars from the same site and even the same room at Godin Tepe, a site excavated in 1973 by Dr. T. Cuyler Young, Jr., curator of ROM's West Asian Department. The researchers continue to analyze other vessels from sites throughout the ancient Near East, in the hopes of discovering even earlier instances of fermented beverages.

This one's for you, Patrick!
Happy St. Patrick's Day, everyone.

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