The Egyptian Pyramids Might Not Have Been Built Without Beer

The history of beer goes back a long ways. We’re talking dawn-of-civilization “long ways”. Consider the fact that ancient versions of today’s most popular libation could have fueled the construction of the Egyptian pyramids! With some recent archeological discoveries there is now data out there to support this interesting story.

Egyptian Pyramids and the History of Beer

beer archeology Egyptian Pyramid

Ancient Mesopotamian clay table with beer symbology. Photo: British Museum

By Dave Grandmaison

There’s some convincing archeological evidence that the earliest beer recipes date back at least 4,000 years. A quick search on the Google Cultural Institute came up with the image of this clay tablet which dates back as far as 3,100 – 3,000 B.C. According to the British Museum where this tablet resides, this fascinating historical document shows the earliest depictions of the symbol for beer. Look for the upright jar with pointed base. That symbol, according to the experts, is the symbol for beer.

After reading an interesting article on the quest for ancient beer recipes and sipping a few beers from Dogfish Head’s Ancient Ale series we decided that it might be fun to explore the role that beer played in the construction of the Egyptian pyramids. But before we do that, I think it’s worth providing a brief description of how the ancient recipes for these beers are discovered. It’s a fascinating line of science called “Biomolecular Archeology”.

Aside: Biomolecular Archeology and Ancient Beer Recipes

Dr. McGovern Biomolecular Archaeology

A happy looking Dr. McGovern. Photo: Penn Museum

Incidentally, it was Dr. Patrick McGovern at The University of Pennsylvania who was able to decipher recipe clues found in ancient vessels – clay growlers – found in 1957 at a site called Midas Tumulus, in central Turkey at the ancient site of Gordion where (it is thought) king Gordius was buried around 740-700 B.C.

Long story short, these ornate growlers contained remains of an ancient beverage and Dr. McGovern found (among other things) calcium oxalate (a.k.a. beerstone) which pointed to the presence of barley beer! The beverage which ultimately became the source recipe for Dogfish’s Midas Touch, was a highly unusual mixture of grape wine, barley beer and honey mead.

You can read more about this fascinating discovery on Dr. McGovern’s website.

Doesn’t Dr. McGovern look like the happiest scientist you’ve ever seen?

Back to the Pyramid – Beer Connection

Do a bit of online pyramid research and you’ll find a lot of interesting debates among the Eqyptologist community. But narrow your search to the role of beer and you’ll see that the evidence is rather convincing. According to a BBC article by Dr. Joyce Tyldesley, current archeological evidence indicates that the pyramid construction sites were supported by purpose-built villages that housed upwards of 4,000 primary laborers (e.g., quarry workers, haulers and masons). They would have been supported by and estimated 16-20,000 secondary workers (e.g., ramp builders, tool-makers, mortar mixers and those providing back-up services such as supplying food, clothing and fuel).

That’s amounts to about 20-25,000 workers who would have worked on the job site for 20 years or more!

Accorder to her article, the going rate for Old Kingdom (2686-2181 B.C.) labor was of a ration consisting of ten loaves and a measure of beer.

Dr. Tyldesley goes on to describe how “a labouring (sp) family consuming ten loaves in a day… [and] supervisors and those of higher status were entitled to hundreds of loaves and many jugs of beer a day. These were supplies which would not keep fresh for long, so we must assume that they were, at least in part, notional rations, which were actually paid in the form of other goods – or perhaps credits. In any case, the pyramid town, like all other Egyptian towns, would soon have developed its own economy as everyone traded unwanted rations for desirable goods or skills.

Egyptian Pyramids at Giza

Dr. McGovern describes the importance of beer in the ancient workplace. “For the pyramids, each worker got a daily ration of four to five liters. It was a source of nutrition, refreshment and reward for all the hard work. It was beer for pay. You would have had a rebellion on your hands if they’d run out. The pyramids might not have been built if there hadn’t been enough beer.

So there you have it. Ancient civilization… much like modern civilization… was fueled by beer. Cheers!

Barley's Angels border

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of beer and how the craft beer scene is growing in Northern Minnesota, please visit our Brewery Tour Page and book a Brewery Tour with The Duluth Experience!

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