The biggest industry in predynastic Hierakonpolis at present, appears to have been beer, or perhaps more accurately stated: the production of a grain-based food. Evidence for this comes in the form of large ceramic vats set into installations where their contents were heated. Analysis of the thick residue adhering to the bottom and sides of the vats indicates a fairly complicated recipe involving malted and crushed emmer wheat with a smaller component of barley and in some cases the addition of a sweetener, like the fruit of the Zizyphus spina-christi, or Christ’s Thorn Jujube (nebk in Arabic). While it is highly likely that it is beer that is being produced, other foods, such as porridge, are also possible products of this process.
Regardless of what exactly was being made, there is no question they were making a lot of it. Each of the large conical vats could hold from about 20 US gallons, and the number of vats in the four heating installations investigated so far range from 6 to 16. Thus even the smallest of the installations could have produced about 100 gallons a day, depending on the product. This is production on an industrial scale.
This intensive production took place in two locations: HK24 near the edge of the cultivation in the industrial zone on the northeast side of town and at HK11C (wadi breweries) back in the wadi, which may have serviced the mortuary cult in the elite cemetery at HK6. Other localities across the site may also have hosted such installations based on surface remains of large vat sherds and burning, but the product and the scale cannot be determined.
Beer was an important part of the diet and ritual in Dynastic Egypt and there is no reason to believe this was different in Predynastic times. The brewing process is estimated to require about two days in order to produce a nutritious beverage with an alcohol content that increased with time. Earlier discussions of ancient beer-making, based on an interpretation of the artistic record of the Dynastic period coupled with ethnographic testimony for the production of the indigenous alcoholic drink called ‘bouza, suggested that lightly baked bread was used to provide the yeasts to a mixture of coarsely ground grains soaked in water and left to ferment. However, the archaeobotanical data from the vats at Hierakonpolis and evidence from other sites indicate that beer-making in ancient Egypt did not require bread. Instead, it involved a complex set of procedures including the malting and cooking of grain (mainly emmer wheat) in water, the heat needed to release the sugars with various fruits added to increase the sugar available for fermentation, followed by the sieving off of the liquid which was then fermented (see Samuel 2000 or Hornsey 2003 for discussion). After sieving, the resulting brew would not have been thick and chewy like bouza, nor would it have been clear and frothy like modern beer. A cloudy wheat beer would be the closest approximation, but remember without hops (they come from China) to stabilize the brew and add a tang, it might have been rather bland for our tastes. We really won’t know until we try some!
Similar heating/brewing installations have been uncovered at other Predynastic and Early Dynastic sites. At Abydos, nine installations were discovered, the two best preserved containing 35 and 23 vats respectively. More recently an extensive installation has also been uncovered at Tel el Farkha in the Delta. From the work at Hierakonpolis it is now possible to chart changes in the technology of these heating installations. These establishments, present across a variety of major sites, provide some of the earliest evidence in Egypt for communal organization within a settlement context and underline the central importance of beer at this time.
For further information on beer making see:
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.
Hornsey, I. S., 2003. A History of Beer and Brewing. Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry.
Kubiak-Martens, L. and Langer, J.L., 2008. Predynastic beer brewing as suggested by botanical and physicochemical evidence from Tell el-Farkha, Eastern Delta, [in:] B. Midant-Reynes and Y. Tristant (eds.), Egypt at its origins 2. Proceedings of the International Conference "Origin of the state, Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt”, Toulouse (France), 5th-8th September 2005, Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 172, Leuven: 427-441.
Samuel, D. 2000. Brewing and baking in P.T. Nicholson and I. Shaw, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, Cambridge: 537-576.
Samuel, D., 1996 Archaeology of ancient Egyptian beer. Journal of the American Society of Brewing Chemists 54(1): 3-12
Takamiya, I.H., 2008. Firing Installations and Specialization: A View from Recent Excavations at Hierakonpolis Locality 11C [in:] Midant-Reynes, B. & Tristant, Y. (eds.), Egypt at its origins 2. Proceedings of the international conference ‘Origin of the State. Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt’, Toulouse (France), 5th–8th September 2005. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 172. Leuven: 187-202.