Experimental Archaeology & Beer Production

In the summers of 2012, '13, '14 and '15 HARP ran an Experimental Archaeology Field School in the village of Kissonerga, Cyprus.  The Field Schools recreated an installation that was likely used for beer production in the Middle Bronze Age.  The original structure has been excavated as part of a research excavation run by Dr. Lindy Crewe (CAARI) since 2007.

The site of Kissonerga-Skalia is an Early-Middle Cypriot settlement, abandoned at the beginning of the Late Cypriot period.  Excavations have revealed a series of domestic dwellings that were superseded by a phase of monumental construction.  The village of Kissonerga is incredibly rich in archaeological sites with some of the worlds oldest Neolithic wells, the Chalcolithic settlement of Kissonerga-Mosphillia, as well as the settlement of Skalia.  The original installation was constructed out of mud plaster and would have originally had a domed roof.  The structure contained a series of pot lined pits and a sunken fire pit that would have heated the main chamber of the structure.  An article by Crewe and Hill investigating beer in the archaeological record, using Kissonerga-Skalia as a case study, is available in Volume 44 No. 2 of Levant 

Levant Article

During beer production partially germinated or malted grains are added to water and heated to make a 'mash' and wort, a sticky viscous liquid.  Following this stage the fermentation process can begin.  Prior to making the 'mash' the germination process of the grains needs to be stopped, this is usually done by drying the grains rapidly.  It is believed that the heat generated within the main chamber of the installation at Skalia would be sufficient to dry out the germinated grains before making the 'mash' and adding to water in order to produce beer.  

Reconstruction of the Installation

Using experimental building techniques, the Field School in 2012 replicated the installation to a working level in order to test its functionality and suitability for malting grain.The installation was built with a domed roof, a large entrance and a sunken pit near the entrance to house a large pot, used as the firebox of the kiln.  The theory being that heat generated from the fire would rise and circulate around the dome, with the most intense heat remaining within the pot.  By covering the entrance to the installation with temporary doors and building a chimney into the domed roof, the temperatures and airflow within the dome could be further controlled.

The installation was built from mud, with stones mixed in to help bind the mixture together.  The domed roof was built onto a lattice-work frame to provide support.  The original installation at Skalia does not show evidence of a lattice frame, however, our main purpose was to test the functionality of the installation, and the feasibility  of it being used as a drying or malting kiln.  The use of the frame allowed us to complete the installation in the time that we had and still produce an accurate representation of the original installation, as the frame did not affect the function of the kiln.

The 2013 to 2015 reconstructions were built in a similar fashion to that of 2012, however the roof was completely constructed from a mud plaster mixture, as would have been the case with the original installation. There was also a temporary, mud-brick door built in order to seal the kiln during use.

Cross Section diagram of a malting kiln
A reconstructed malting kiln
Experimental archaeology in action with progress on a reconstructed malting kiln
Reconstructed Bronze Age malting kiln with mud brick doorway
Reconstructed malting kiln in use

Once the installations were built a fire was made in the bottom of the large storage pot to test the drying capabilities of the kiln.  Temperature readings were taken at various points within the dome.  With an outside air temperature of around 38 degrees Celsius, it was found that once the fire had been lit, the temperature at ground level within the installation was raised to between 50 and 60 degrees Celsius.  This temperature remained constant whilst the fire was burning, and is an ideal temperature for creating a pale or crystal malt.  Towards the top of the dome however there was a significant increase in the temperature, which reached up to 200 degrees Celsius, but on average was around 150 degrees Celsius.

The reconstructed kilns therefore was suitable for malting grain, further supporting the theory that the original installation at Skalia was used for beer production.  The original installation may also have been used for other purposes such as drying fruit or even cooking.  During our experiments we managed to cook and smoke meat in the upper parts of the dome.

Germinated grain ready for drying/malting in the malting kiln
Malted grain ready to remove from the reconstructed malting kiln

Beer Production

Along with the reconstruction of the kilns, a series of experiments were carried out in order to try to produce beer in a similar way to how it would have been produced during the Bronze Age, using ingredients that would have been available at the time (and fruits that there is evidence for at Skalia).  

Large batches of barley were germinated and malted using sun drying (possible in the summer months due to the high temperatures), before different strengths of mash were produced and fermented using different strains of yeast.  A control batch was fermented using modern brewers yeast and compared to batches fermented using wild grapes and wild figs, which both have strains of wild yeast cultures growing on their skins.

The resulting beers were very different to the beer that we are accustomed to today, some of the batches had a slight acidic taste to them, which is more than likely due to the wild yeasts used to produce them.  Brewers yeast has been developed over the years in order to have a well controlled strain of yeast suitable for producing alcohol, however, the strains available back in the Bronze Age may not have been so reliable.  Wild yeasts cannot be as 'controlled' as modern brewers yeast and can produce differing results.  Whilst some of the beers produced had an acquired taste, the fig beer was a hit, and with a little tweaking to the recipe it may well prove to be an appropriate session ale!

Excavating the Remains

One of the main features of the projects was to allow the kilns to collapse and decay in order to excavate the remains. This has allowed us to test our original excavation hypothesese and compare the collapsed remains of the reconstructions to those of the original kiln. These projects are now in the process of being written up, and we aim to have two journal articles out in the near future. We had an incredible time recreating Bronze Age brews and if you would like to know more about the projects please don't hesitate to contact us.

Sprouted/germinated barley