Ancient brewery discovered
Early this week, American and Egyptian archaeologists excavating the northern part of the Abydos archaeological site in Sohag stumbled upon what could be the world’s oldest industrial-scale beer-production site.
According to the mission’s report, the brewery consists of at least eight large semi-subterranean installations built on the edge of the desert at Abydos at the dawn of ancient Egyptian history. It dates to around 3000 BCE, approximately contemporary with the era of the early Egyptian king Narmer.
The capacity of the facility was industrial in scale and unprecedented for its time, producing many thousands of litres of beer. “It was probably built to supply the funerary cults of Egypt’s first kings,” Matthew Adams of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, who is leading the mission in Egypt, suggested.
He said that the brewery was made up of eight large semi-subterranean installations, each 20m long, 2.5m wide, and 40cm deep. Each installation contained around 40 large ceramic vats arranged in two rows and held in place by rings of vertically-set sun-dried mud struts called “fire legs”.
The vats were used to heat a grain-and-water mixture in a process called “mashing,” which was then fermented to produce beer.
The industrial scale of production at Abydos, estimated at approximately 22,000 litres per batch, has no known equal in the archaeological record from early Egypt. British archaeologists excavated the brewery in the early 20th century, but its importance was not understood at that time and the exact location had been lost.
The mission relocated the brewery in 2018 and continued the investigation in 2020.
Deborah Vischak of Princeton University in the US and director of the mission pointed out that the brewery was located in a vast desert area reserved exclusively for the use of Egypt’s first kings, including Narmer.
The brewery may have been built expressly to supply royal rituals, based on extensive excavation of the monuments and evidence for the use of beer in large-scale offering rituals in them.
Beer production on such a huge scale was one of many ways that the kings of the first and second dynasties had expressed their power over Egypt, Vischak said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly