The History of Booze

There's Beer in them there Fens

Little did the team at B&C know that just down the road from our base, archaeologists were making breakthrough discoveries about potentially the earliest beer making in Britain. For months, we have been able to hear the road crews and all of their wonderful machinery, disturbing the usual gentle hum of the A14, as we have been hard at work on the magazine, oblivious to the fact that history was being uncovered under our very noses.

Lara Gonzalez

Anyone living in around the A14 will know that locals have been campaigning for years to have the road improved; it is troubled daily by accidents, delays, road closures and fatalities. Finally Highways England began a £1.5bn upgrade. As with all things of this nature, the archaeologists have to get in there to assess and preserve any finds. Previously, Highways England have reported other exciting finds, including woolly mammoths, 40 pottery kilns, abandoned villages (3 Anglo-Saxon and one medieval), rare Roman coins from the third century and 342 burials. 

Updates from Highways England don’t usually get our motor running, but their latest update got us seriously excited because the team with their trowels and little brushes found what they believe to be evidence of the first beer brewed in the UK. They didn’t find a cluster of pint pots, bottles, cans, discarded boxes of home-brew kits and a curious collection of plastic barrels and tubing, - so how do they know they have evidence of beer making. If you are an archaeologist then you would recognise small pieces of pot with a charred residue as being obvious signs of Iron Age brewing. The team think it could be as old as 400BC. It turns out that Iron Age soakage was porridge and bread - who knew? Commenting on these latest finds, Dr Steve Sherlock, Highways England Archaeology lead for the A14 project, said:

“The work we are doing on the A14 continues to unearth incredible discoveries that are helping to shape our understanding of how life in Cambridgeshire, and beyond, has developed through history. It’s a well-known fact that ancient populations used the beer making process to purify water and create a safe source of hydration, but this is potentially the earliest physical evidence of that process taking place in the UK. This is all part of the work we are doing to respect the area’s cultural heritage while we deliver our vital upgrade for the A14.”

The project is so big that it has required a team of up to 250 archaeologists to tackle it. They have been led by experts from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) Headland Infrastructure, working on the project, investigating 33 sites across 360 hectares. These are the same guys who are working on the HS2. It was their archaeobotanist, Lara Gonzalez, who found the critical beer evidence. Here’s what she had to say:

“I knew when I looked at these tiny fragments under the microscope that I had something special. The micro-structure of these remains had clearly changed through the fermentation process and air bubbles typical of those formed in the boiling and mashing process of brewing. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, but as an archaeobotanist it’s incredibly exciting to identify remains of this significance and to play a part in uncovering the fascinating history of the Cambridgeshire landscape.”

She went on to explain how the porous structure of the fragments can appear to be bread like, but that is where her expertises comes in because it is only through studying the fragment microscopically that: “ it’s possible to see that this residue is from the beer-making process as it shows evidence of fermentation and contains larger pieces of cracked grains and bran, but no fine flour. Further analysis into the fermentation process involved in brewing will hopefully tell us more.”

The A14 archaeology project has impressed so many people that it has now been nominated for the “Rescue Project of the Year” accolade in the 2019 Current Archaeology Awards. The awards recognise hard work and contribution to our collective knowledge. The winners are selected entirely by public vote. The winner will be announced on the 8th March.

Given that the A14 project only hit the half way mark in November of last year, who knows what Highways England and MOLA Headland Infrastructure will find in the remaining time. Meanwhile, the B&C crew will be heading out with trowels and old toothbrushes into the office garden to start looking for on site evidence. Surely we must have our very own piece of B&C beer history lurking beneath a flower bed.


Sources and Photo Credits from Both Sites 

Highways England

MOLA Headland Infrastructure