HK24: Breweries near the cultivation
At the junction of the Wadi Abul Suffian and the Nile floodplain, just east of the Fort, lies a sub-circular mound about 2m high and about 80-100m in circumference. Designated as Locality HK24 by the modern expedition, this sherd covered mound of burnt red debris at the time of Quibell and Green's 1897-99 exploration was known as the Kom el Ahmar (the Red Mound), and it is by this name the entire region of the low desert is locally known.
Exploration of the area surrounding the Kom el Ahmar and the excavation of an installation of large vats (HK24A) by Jeremy Geller in 1989 provided the first indications that the mound was at the heart of Hierakonpolis' industrial quarter--an area involved in the production of beer and possibly other cereal-based food in Predynastic times. Partial excavation of another vat installation in 2007 at HK24B further supported this view, while a magnetometer survey of the area in 2010 confirmed this assessment, by revealing magnetic anomalies indicating the presence of at least eight other brewing installations, generally rectangular in shape, incorporating large vats set in rows. Nevertheless, it seems that none of them are exactly the same.
The brewery at HK24A investigated by Jeremy Geller, incorporated at least six coarse ceramic vats in two parallel rows set within a mud platform and probably originally covered with an ad hoc superstructure to contain the heat. One end of the structure was destroyed long ago, so the original number of vats cannot be determined. Each vat, in brewing terms, might be considered a mash-tun, in which the infusion of ingredients (mainly emmer wheat and fruits for sugar and taste) was maintained at a warm temperature. Preliminary analysis of the black shiny residue with cereal grains still embedded found within the vats revealed compounds identified with all phases of biosynthetic fermentation.
Based on ethnographic parallels, Geller suggested that the production of beer was a two day process: one day to bring the mash to temperature and cool it down and another day to ferment. Given the outlay for fuel necessary to sustain the needed heat, it is possible that the brew was transferred from the vats to ferment elsewhere, thus freeing the vats for another batch before full cooling of the installation. If this were the case, a great deal of beer could be produced on a daily basis.
The vats, with a height of at least 65cm and a maximum diameter of 85cm, are estimated to have contained about 16 gallons (65 litres) each. The six vats together could thus hold approximately 100 gallons (390 litres). If used on a full time basis, this brewery could produce 300 gallons a week allowing 2 days for fermentation in the vat. Output could be as high as 300 gallons a day if the liquid was transferred to other vessels for fermentation. This is output clearly far in excess of domestic needs. Using the capacity of the standard beer jar of Dynastic times, the daily output of brewery of 300 gallons a day could provide a daily ration for 454 people if each received one jar, or half that number if they received two (the standard Dynastic ration).
About 80 meters from the brewery a circular silt platform supporting six hearths (HK25D) may in fact be the site at which these beer jars were produced, although it had been suggested that this might be a bakery, based on the older belief that bread was needed for the first step in beer production, a notion, which has since been shown to be untrue.
A weighted average of radiocarbon dates from the HK24A vat site of 4719 ± 34 C-14 years bp calibrates to a date of between 3633-3376BC, the earlier end of the range corresponding roughly to Naqada IIB
HK24B, is located roughly 30m away from HK24A and is situated directly adjacent to the mound of industrial debris known as the Kom el Ahmar. Excavations in 2007 undertaken by Jeremy Geller and his team revealed a walled structure containing four depressions, which originally held large ceramic vats for heating up a cereal-based foodstuff (beer). Charred grains of high quality emmer wheat were found around these vats. A radiocarbon test of the residue adhering to the vat fragments provided a date of 3510-3426BC (1 sigma) (IFAO 0356. Conventional C14 age: 4613+/-49BP), corresponding to mid Naqada II.
Excavations were resumed in 2010-2011 following the magnetometer survey of the area which suggested that the installation was larger than originally thought. The renewed investigations by Izumi Takamiya and Nuriyuki Shirai exposed the full extent of the heating installation (approximately 8.0 x 7.0m) as well as a circular mud-brick granary (about 1.5m in diameter) located nearby.
The semi-subterranean interior of the installation was found to contain a total of 16 depressions for holding the vats, although very little remained of the vats themselves. The floor of the structure, about 60 cm below present ground level, was clearly identified by a thin layer of white ash running across its entire surface and around all of the circular vat emplacements.
The installation, with a NW-SE orientation, is almost symmetrical in plan. In the center, the vat depressions were arranged along the central axis in two rows of five vats each. Another six vats were contained in small annexes built on the north and south sides. The walls of the structure were composed of sherds and mud covered with a thick mud plaster in which the finger marks of the maker are still visible. These walls were pierced at regular intervals by openings through which firewood could be introduced and regulate the airflow. Some of these openings had been closed off with sherds and others were filled with charred wood. The vats were located up against the wall segments, with the gaps in the wall falling between them. It is unclear if or how the structure was roofed.
No complete vats remained in the emplacements, but fragments were still in place in some of them, especially in the side chambers. Most depressions contained “kiln debris”, consisting of potsherds coated with burnt mud. From this debris it may be inferred that the large vats (more than 70cm in diameter) were held in place with mud and pottery sherds, although the support system seems to vary. In the central space, the vats were embedded in deep pits for support and held in place with mud, burnt lumps of which in irregular shapes were frequently found around the edges of the vat depressions. In the annexed rooms, where the depressions are relatively shallow, the vats appear to have been supported mainly by the mud plastered walls with just a few sherds and lumps of mud at their base.
The continuous layer of white ash across the floor indicates that all of the vats in the installation were heated up together at one time, and that all of the vats were active until the final use phase of the installation, however, repairs or additions to the installation may be inferred from the north wall segments, which were built on a dark soot-rich layer and not the natural soil as elsewhere. With all 16 vats in use, more than 1000 litres of beer (or porridge) could have been produced at one time. This is the largest brewery known to date at Hierakonpolis, but the magnetic traces of others in this industrial quarter suggest that some might be even larger.
To the north of the installation at HK24B a row of wooden posts was discovered, and to the west a platform of mud with postholes, indicative of further posts. Together they suggest a wooden wall enclosed the area or that a veranda was attached where the workmen could prepare the mixture or rest while tending the fire. Similar evidence for surrounding structure was found around the HK11C Operation A brewery installation and at the brewery at Tell el Farkha in the Delta.
The small mud-brick granary to the east was found to be filled only with windblown sand, and its date and relationship to the brewery installation remain unclear. Excavations in this locality are still on-going and further granaries are currently under investigation.
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For further information on HK24A see:
Geller, J.R. 1989. Recent Excavations at Hierakonpolis and their Relevance to Predynastic Pyrotechnology and Settlement, Cahier de Recherches de l'Institut de Papyrologie et d'Égyptologie de Lille 11: 41-52.
Geller, J.R., 1992. Predynastic Beer Production at Hierakonpolis, Upper Egypt: Archaeological Evidence and Anthropological Implications. Ph.D dissertation, Washington University, St. Louis.
Geller, J.R., 1992. From Prehistory to History: Beer in Egypt, [in:] Friedman, R. and Adams, B/ (eds.), The Followers of Horus. Oxford: 19-26.
Maksoud, S.A., El Hadidi, M.N, Amer, W.M., 1994. Beer from the early dynasties (2500-3400 cal B.C.) of Upper Egypt, detected by archaeochemical methods. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 3: 219-224.
For more pictures and to follow the 2007 excavations at HK24B see:
For further information on HK24B see:
Nekhen News 19 (2007),
Nekhen News 22 (2010)
Nekhen News 23 (2011)
Nekhen News 24 (2012), available to Friends of Nekhen