What do we know about the ancient, Iron Age inhabitants of northern Europe? If we believe Greek and Roman accounts, these people were rude and uncivilized “barbarians.” In particular, they binged on primitive fermented beverages and spent much of their time in drunken stupors.
But is this depiction accurate? The Greeks and Romans were certainly predisposed to view their northern adversaries as inferior beings.
A team of U.S. researchers decided to find out, by studying exactly how “primitive” these ancient Nordic drinks actually were. Scientists and archaeologists analyzed well-preserved residues within vessels from tombs and hoards in Denmark and Sweden that dated from 1500 BCE to the first century AD. Their analytical equipment included an Agilent gas chromatograph, mass selective detector and column.
A combination of archaeological, biomolecular and archaeo-botanical evidence from four sites paints a coherent picture of how these ancient Nordic people conceived of and made their fermented beverages.
In general, they preferred a hybrid “grog” in which various ingredients were most likely fermented together. Ingredients included honey, local berries and cereals (including wheat, rye and barley). They sometimes added grape wine imported from southern Europe. Additional flavoring came from juniper, birch, pine, myrtle and yarrow, possibly when the drinks were served.
Overall, these people displayed innovation and creativity in their fermented beverages, often experimenting with a variety of natural sources from other areas. Honey in particular was known as a rare and expensive commodity, usually reserved for the rich and powerful.
In summary, the researchers concluded that the ancient Nordics were far from the uncivilized barbarians that their southern enemies portrayed them to be.
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