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On the northern edge of the ancient necropolis at Abydos, archaeologists have discovered an industrial scale brewery in the Egyptian desert that is altering our understanding of the early production of beer in the ancient Mediterranean and helping historians to rewrite the formation of the early Egyptian state.
The brewery dates to the late Predynastic or Early Dynastic Period around 3100–2900 BCE, when Egypt was first beginning to form into a state. To understand more about this find, Hyperallergic spoke to Abydos Archaeology’s Matthew Douglas Adams, who co-directs the excavation with Deborah Vischak as part of fieldwork supported by New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts and Princeton University. We discussed the recent discovery of the brewery, the history of ancient Egyptian beer, and how archaeologists might work together with modern breweries to revive ancient recipes from the remains left on ancient vessels.
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Hyperallergic: What can this find tell us about beer consumption in Egypt around 3000 BCE? How big a part of the Egyptian diet was it?
Matthew Douglas Adams: From the couple of major sites of the mid-fourth millennium BCE where breweries have been excavated, Hierakonpolis in southern Egypt and Tell el-Farkha in the Nile Delta, it appears that the production of beer beyond household scale was closely associated with the emergence of elites who may have used beer in feasting or other ritual contexts to reinforce their position in the community. In both cases, the notable feature is the scale of production, which ranged from a few hundred to perhaps a thousand liters per batch — both well above the household scale.
From at least the mid-third millennium onwards, Egyptian settlements have produced abundant evidence for routine household production of beer, along with household bread making. From this alone, we can be confident that beer was a standard part of the Egyptian diet. The two activities, baking and brewing, were closely associated both practically and conceptually. In funerary contexts, depictions of the two typically occur together, reflecting a common reality on the ground. Bread and beer are also routinely associated in ritual contexts where food offerings are being presented to a deceased person or to a deity in his/her temple. They were perceived as the most fundamental foodstuffs: With bread and beer, one could live. On a practical level, they also occur together in the surviving written record relating to the payment of wages. Workers on state projects, or soldiers at fortresses securing Egypt’s borders or territorial holdings, were paid in bread and beer, among other items.
HA: At what point can we label an ancient brewery “industrial”? What does that mean?
MDA: At present, scholars of early Egypt tend to use “industrial” a bit flexibly to refer to any production that is significantly beyond household-level needs. Breweries at both Tell el-Farkha and Hierakonpolis have been described as “industrial,” which seems reasonable enough, as long as it is qualified in terms of the temporal context. At Abydos, however, it’s now clear that we have production at a different order of magnitude: a few hundred or even a thousand liters versus more than 20,000 liters per batch. We’re not certain yet how frequently a batch was produced at Abydos, but even if it were only once per month, for example, that would be well over 250,000 liters annually. In addition, the facility as a whole is rather formally laid out, with eight individual structures that all conform to the same basic plan, arranged in parallel with around 8 meters left empty between each one. The standardization evident in the brewery itself, as well as the productive capacity, and the labor and staple resources that would have been needed for production to take place, all suggest that this was a state-administered initiative, not something happening at the community level. Given all these factors, I’m comfortable calling the Abydos brewery “industrial” in scale.
HA: Can you tell us a bit about the Egyptian brewers? What kind of labor force went into this degree of beer production?
MDA: This is a difficult question to answer. Each individual brewery structure contained perhaps 40 vat emplacements, and I doubt each individual vat had a dedicated brewer. That being said, at the opposite extreme, it would probably have been quite inefficient in terms of time to have only one or two people responsible for filling the vats, fueling and firing the structures, and then emptying the vats of the cooked mash. Each vat, after all, was around 70 liters in volume.
The reality is probably somewhere between those two extremes. Where, exactly, though, it’s impossible to say. A reasonable estimate might be eight, meaning five vats per person. With eight structures involved, that would get us to 64 “brewers.” Besides those, however, there would also be additional people bringing the grain and water supplies needed, as well as the pottery jars into which the finished product would be poured. Transport in and out may have involved a considerable number of donkeys, as well. All in all, then, when the brewery was operating, it would have been a very busy place, with probably over 100 people, as well as some animals, on-site.
HA: Are there any plans to work with local breweries to help reconstruct this Egyptian brew?
MDA: We very much hope to see this happen. Replicating ancient beer is an area of experimental archaeology that has broad appeal, and it’s certainly understandable why that’s the case. I’m aware of a couple of efforts with ancient Egyptian beers, specifically, with others focused on beer production in other parts of the ancient world, both old and new. In our case, given that this appears to be Egypt’s first royal brewery and that it dates approximately to the time of King Narmer, it could have a certain appeal. Imagine taking a sip of the drink of Egypt’s founding king! As scholars of antiquity, we spend our professional lives trying to reach across time to touch and understand the ancient world. Tasting this resurrected beer would achieve that in a very real way.
HA: What does this discovery mean for our understanding of labor organization, the formation of the Egyptian state, and the building of the pyramids?
MDA: I would see this as one of the most important takeaways from our work on the brewery so far. The production capacity alone is astonishing for this early time, of course, but looking deeper, the broader implications for understanding the early Egyptian state are very significant. With control of resources came also the ability to mobilize labor on a scale not seen previously and to support specialized production of various kinds.
At Abydos we have to keep in mind also that the brewery doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The kings of Dynasties I [3100-2900 BCE] and II [2890-2686 BCE] also built large tombs for themselves at the site, as well as the much more visible monumental structures we call ritual, or cultic, enclosures, essentially funerary temples. All this activity took place in a desert landscape that was reserved for the exclusive use of the kings. This constellation of practices hangs together in my view as different means of defining the nature and extent of royal power, defining the nature of kingship and its utterly singular position in Egyptian society. The brewery is one component of this broader pattern. Only the king could mandate production on such a scale and for official purposes. It’s basically the same range of capabilities evident at Abydos that we see later making the great state projects possible.
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As Adams notes, understanding how the mobilization of resources and workers functioned in order to produce mass amounts of beer provides a window into understanding the creation of other, much grander monuments. He explains:
The ability to organize production, mobilize labor, to draw on staple resources on a large scale, and to administer all of the above, are exactly what made the construction of the pyramids possible. They’re visible already at Abydos as part and parcel of the beginning of the unified Egyptian state.
To archaeologists, understanding the building of the Pyramids at Giza from 2550 to 2490 BCE is a matter of scaling up the labor system seen earlier at sites like Abydos, rather than searching for the invention of a new system entirely. Adams underscores the fact that the huge systems of labor and resources needed to build the great royal pyramid complexes at Giza and the adjacent “Lost City of the Pyramid Builders” can be better conceptualized by looking to the earlier royal breweries that created thousands of liters of beer per year on a scale never before seen in the ancient Mediterranean.