Archaeological Mystery

In Iraq: a Tavern, a Beer Recipe, and a Brewery That Are 5,000 Years Old Have Been Uncovered

While discovering tools, human remains, and art at archaeological sites is undoubtedly fascinating, it pales in comparison to uncovering information about the alcohol habits of our ancient ancestors. Recently, a team of researchers excavating the former city of Lagash in Southern Iraq stumbled upon an unexpected find – what they believe to be the remains of a tavern and a brewery. This discovery has generated a great deal of excitement among archaeologists and historians alike.

City of Lagash

Lagash, situated at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is modern-day Iraq, was a magnificent city in its time, dating back to the third millennium BC. It was ruled by the Sumerian kings and held great significance to their people. The city’s history stretches even further back, with evidence suggesting that it may have been inhabited from as early as 5200 BC, up until 224 AD.

An aerial photo showing a general view of the site of the ancient city of Lagash where the tavern excavations occurred, February 11, 2023

Despite frequently using the title of “king,” Lagash never had a formal ruler of this kind. However, from an archaeological perspective, the city has played a crucial role in our understanding of the Sumerian civilization. During the French excavation of the site between 1877 and 1933, more than 50,000 cuneiform texts and numerous wall carvings were uncovered, providing an extensive knowledge base about the height of Sumerian culture.

An ancient tavern

Lagash arose in an area called the “garden of the gods” because of how fertile the soil was. This led to great agricultural prosperity in the region, and it became an ideal place to establish Sumerian cities. A joint American-Italian team from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Pisa set out to excavate this particular set of ruins to find Sumerian artifacts, identifying numerous benches, and roughly 150 bowls containing animal bones.

An aerial picture showing the tavern site and nearby kilns that were excavated in the former city of Lagash, February 11, 2023

They also identified an oven that would have been used to cook food, and even a basic refrigerator. Altogether, these items indicate that the space was used by commoners as a commercial eatery. In addition to there being evidence of beer drinking at the site, the team began calling the site a tavern because, “beer is by far the most common drink, even more than water, for the Sumerians.”

Vintage beer

Upon conducting their analysis, the team concluded that the site dates back to around 2700 BC, making it roughly 5,000 years old. Until now, much of what was understood about the Sumerians pertained to their ruling elite. However, this discovery has shed light on a different segment of the population. The researchers hope to gain insight into the neighborhoods and occupations of the common people who resided in this vast city.

An example of a cuneiform inscription that was discovered at a site in the former city of Lagash, November 16, 2021.

One of the best ways to gain insight into the everyday lives of people is to examine their drinking habits. As part of the same project, the team also unearthed a three-story ruin nearby that housed another oven, a basin, and several ceramic vats. They speculate that this structure was once a brewery, in part due to the discovery of a cuneiform tablet inscribed with a beer recipe inside the building.



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