Experts recreate a 2,500-year old Iron Age drink from ancient Germanic tomb

Back in the year 2000, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee archaeologist (and anthropologist) Bettina Arnold discovered a bronze cauldron inside a burial complex in Swabia, Germany – dating from 5th century BC. Interestingly enough, to her surprise, the inside walls of the vessel contained traces of an ancient brew. And after years of paleobotanical analysis, researchers and brewers have been able to recreate the Germanic drink concoction from Iron Age by identifying key ingredients of the original recipe.

The burial plot in question here pertained to a tumulus (Latin for ‘little hill’) that encompassed a mound of earth and cut stones constructed over a grave. Now while this grave in itself didn’t have a skeleton, possibly due to the remains being dissolved over millenniums by the acidic soil, the burial type alludes to an occupant who was probably an elite of the society. The occupant was also a male, as could be evidenced by the flurry of equipment (dating from circa 450 BC) inside the grave, including an iron sword, leather helmet with metal attachment (for feather crests) and two sturdy iron spears. In addition to these military objects, Arnold was witness to the aforementioned bronze cauldron. She made an interesting hypothesis relating to this incredible find (in ) –

The dead man in Tumulus 17 Grave 6 had been sent into the afterlife not only with his weapons but with about 14 liters of an alcoholic beverage that he could have used to establish himself as an important person in the next world as he had been in this one.


The original bronze cauldron. Source: Bettina Arnold.

Simply put, the ambit of alcohol was not only used for ‘lubricating’ social-based communications in real-life but also for ‘easing’ on the person’s connection in his after-life. Now from the historical context this does makes sense. As we had mentioned in our previous articles about the (and also the later Germanic Anglo-Saxons), for an ancient European warlord, “the acquisition of wines and their distribution among his retainers would actually reinforce his standing within the tribal structure.” As Arnold further explained (to ) –

Luckily for us, they didn’t just send people off to the afterlife with [weapons] — they also sent them off with the actual beverage. It’s a BYOB afterlife, you know? You have to be able to sort of throw a party when you get there.

As for the volume of the cauldron, we fleetingly mentioned how the vessel could amply accommodate around 14 liters (or 3.7 gallons) of presumably high quality beverage. But beyond just the volume, the researchers had to analyse the ‘old’ traces of the substance that lined the walls of the ancient bronze container. And on paleobotanical assessment of the remnants, they found out that the Iron Age drink was made of ingredients like yeast, barley, honey, meadowsweet (as opposed to hops), and mint.


Cellarmaster at Lakefront Brewery, Chad Sheridan, provided insights in regards to the true nature of the drink. Source: Bettina Arnold

After identifying these key ingredients, Arnold decided to entirely recreate the drink, and she took the help of brew-making experts at Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery. Lakefront cellarmaster Chad Sheridan put forth his theory that this ancient beverage might have been a variant of braggot, a form of mead that basically entails the blend of honey and barley malt (as two sugar sources). In any case, the resultant drink, according to NPR’s Bonnie North, was “was smooth and pleasant — almost like a dry port, but with a minty, herbal tinge to it. It also packed an alcoholic kick.” Arnold further mentioned –

[Our] version would have been significantly cleaner than the prehistoric one, but we did succeed in producing something that provides those of us with jaded modern palates with a very different flavor profile. The mint actually came through first, which was unexpected, followed by the slightly astringent meadow sweet, but the honey was barely in evidence (having been almost completely converted to alcohol)…with an [alcohol by volume] of over 8 percent, this is not your grannie’s braggot, and although adding honey at this stage would probably make it more drinkable for [today’s] mead imbibers, we decided to leave it as is.

Unfortunately for the paleo-brew enthusiasts, this particular ancient variety of braggot from Iron Age Swabia will probably not see the commercial light of the day. But the good news is – that is not the end of the line for recreations of historical drinks for Arnold. On the contrary, she and her faculty (at UWM’s College of Letters and Science) are working on introducing a program and even a course that will allow even more recreations based on authentic ancient recipes and archaeological evidences.


A modern version of braggot. Image courtesy of American Homebrewers Association.


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