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While some of our ancestors have left behind historical documents that tell us a lot about how they lived, it’s easier to learn about the past through objects that were made or used during the period in question. In the case of wine and beer, these objects could be anything from remnants of a grape vine that was once used to make a favorite batch of wine, to the remains of a drinking vessel that was used to enjoy that particular beverage. (Unless you’re fortunate enough to have a time-traveling DeLorean, the most effective way to learn about the past is through the process of careful scientific analysis.)

Despite the widespread availability of alcohol today, the history of beer and wine is still relatively unknown compared to other drinks, such as coffee and tea. Yet the history of beer and wine is just as interesting as some of the other beverages we value today. The history of wine and beer is long and complicated. Today, we’ll be looking into some of the history behind beer and wine. What is known is that wine existed in Mesopotamia and Egypt in the centuries before 3000 BC. A number of Sumerian terms for wine were found on clay tablets along with illustrations of wine and beer making ceremonies. An example of a wine list from Babylonia in the 1700s BC.

Lea Drieu, PhD, a chemist at the University of York, uses a combination of chemistry and archaeology to study the eating and drinking habits of people who lived thousands of years ago.

For example, when old pottery is discovered during an archaeological dig, she works with a team of scientists to determine whether it was used to hold wine, vinegar or other fruit juices. It’s a complicated question, Drieu says.

Like others who study beverages in antiquity, his work is complex and constantly evolving. With the help of biological, archaeological and chemical detectives, new technologies and scientific techniques, ranging from ancient pottery to DNA analysis, bring to light the history of alcoholic beverages around the world.

Chemical footprint of wine

In that year, Drieu led a study which concluded that Sicily, which was under Islamic control, had seen a number of people murdered between the fifth and eleventh centuries. The wine of the century has been exchanged. She and her colleagues analyzed more than 100 amphorae. Dr. Drieu has developed a new method for the analysis of organic residues to confirm the chemical fingerprint of wine on ancient pottery.

The main compound we were looking for in wine is tartaric acid, Drieu says. The tiny crystals may be familiar to wine lovers because they sometimes form when the wine is old, she says.

Although tartaric acid was found, she could not confirm that the jars contained wine. This compound is also present in fruits like grapes, citrus fruits and bananas.

This molecule is not specific to wine and is not specific to grapes, she says.

Excavations in Sicily at one of the medieval amphora sites / Photo: Lea Drieu

Drieu therefore also looked for a chemical signature of malic acid, another compound found in acidic fruits alongside tartaric acid. She analyzed different types of fruits and liquids such as unripe grapes, tamarind, wine, grape juice and vinegar. She discovered that the relationship between these two acids in grape products is different than in most other fruits.

This method of analyzing the amount of malic and tartaric acid is a more accurate way of determining which containers have contained wine, Drieu said. There is currently no way to distinguish between grape juice, grape syrup, vinegar or wine based on chemical analysis.

To carry out her research, Drieu combined chemical studies with historical written sources from the Middle Ages.

Archeobotanical evidence

According to Drieu, old beer is chemically more difficult to detect than wine, because the ingredients of beer are used in other processes. Traces of cereal grains can come from the production of beer or many types of food.

To identify the beer remains, Drieu may work with an archaeobotanist or a researcher who studies archaeology and botany, such as Tanya Valamoti.

As an archaeobotanist at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece, Dr. Valamoti examines sites for small objects that other archaeologists do not notice, such as… B. Residues from grapes or sprouted grains.

The chemistry of natural products is a very, very broad field. -Léa Drieu

The secret ingredient of their research success is fire.

The material is preserved, at least where I work, by carbonization, says Valamoti. When structures have burned for thousands of years, the charcoal left on the organic remains can help them survive for thousands of years.

Valamoti has found evidence that beer has been around for thousands of years.

I think at the end of the third millennium b. Chr. on the Greek mainland, beer was probably already being produced, she says.

Valamoti came to this conclusion after collecting remains of sprouted grains, part of the malting process, at Bronze Age sites in Greece, called Archondiko and Argissa, dating back to 2100 BC. Chr. Chr. Dozens of small cups were also found at the sites, which may indicate that they were drinking vessels for this Bronze Age form of beer.

Charred grapevines from Dikili Tash, Greece, 4300 B.C. Chr. / Photo: Sultan Maria Valamoti

European vineyard DNA

The sites in Greece where Valamoti has found thousands of preserved grape seeds mean that people harvested and ate grapes, she says. But this is not irrefutable proof of wine making.

On the other hand, if we use a grape press to find a pure concentration of grape seeds, i.e. the seeds surrounded by the skin… We then know that the fruit has been crushed to squeeze it and get the juice out, she says.

She can conclude that people drank grape juice or fermented it to make wine or vinegar.

These seeds may also be ripe for DNA analysis. Nathan Wales, a lecturer at the University of York, has managed to extract ancient DNA from 900-year-old grape seeds.

In a 2019 scientific study, he examined more than two dozen grape seeds from archaeological digs in France and found an exact match to the modern Savania grape. According to him, this means that cutting off one branch can lead to the propagation of the same vine for 900 years.

According to Wales, the DNA of old seeds can be used to distinguish wine grapes from table grapes, since the [genetic] distance between the two groups is quite large.

Drieu says the future is bright for scientists looking for new and better ways to study wine and beer in the archaeological record.

Chemistry of natural products is a huge field, she says. And there is probably much work to be done to find product-specific molecules that are stable enough to last for centuries or millennia.

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