Celtic Beer

image of charred barley grains from Eberdingen-Hochdorf .

2,550 year-old barley grains, post malting, from Eberdingen-Hochdorf

Ogma was a brewer, and so was Goibhniu, the smith god. Brigid too was a brewer, and there are many references to the consumption of beer in medieval Celtic texts. In that context the recent find that six specially constructed ditches previously excavated at Eberdingen-Hochdorf a 2,550-year-old Celtic settlement, were used to make high-quality barley malt, an essential beer ingredient. (You may recall Hochdorf as a principle Celtic site, where among other important finds in the museum is the grave of the Hochdorf prince.)

Archaeobotanist Hans-Peter Stika of the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart has published a paper in which he discusses the results of chemical analysis of some of the thousands of charred grains of barley found in the six ditches. The paper, published on January 4, 20 in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences is titled “Early Iron Age and Late Mediaeval malt finds from Germany—attempts at reconstruction of early Celtic brewing and the taste of Celtic beer.”

You can read the abstract, linked above, or download the .pdf of the paper, but the analysis of the malt, in the context of what we know about early brewing in the La Tène Period, fifth –fourth century BCE, Stika suggests that the beer would like have been somewhat smokey in character, with a sour taste (keep in mind that beer in this era would not have used hops).

Replica Carnyx from Tintignac

there were countless trumpeters and horn blowers and since the whole army was shouting its war cries at the same time there was such a confused sound that the noise seemed to come not only from the trumpeters and the soldiers but also from the countryside which was joining in the echo (Polybius 206–126 BCE).


In 2004, archaeologists discovered over 500 iron and bronze items in a small 30cm-deep pit in Tintignac, in France’s Corrèze region. These fragments were all that remained of objects intended as sacrificial donations to the cthonic deities, objects that were deliberately destroyed as part of the ritual donation. Some of the fragments, about 40 fragments, were identified as being parts of a carnyx, a horn used in Celtic warfare, and likely, rituals and ceremonies.

An archaeologist at Inrap (Institut National de Recherches Archéologiques Préventives) Christophe Maniquet wanted to know what a carynx sounded like. Maniquet collaborated with Joël Gilbert, a brass instruments specialist and other experts from an acoustics laboratory at the Maine-CNRS University in Le Mans in order to create a replica of the carynx.

You can read more in “Send for the bard!” from The Guardian.

The World of the Celts. Centers of Power—Treasures of Art

Ceramic plate from Gomadingen, Early Hallstatt, c. 700 BCE

Die Welt der Kelten: Zentren der Macht, Kostbarkeiten der Kunst (“The World of the Celts. Centers of Power—Treasures of Art”) will be at the Landesmuseum Stuttgart through February 17. It’s part of a year-long celebration of the area’s Celtic heritage. In an exhibit that is reminiscent of the joint European “Celtic World” exhibit featured as part of the EU opening ceremonies, the exhibit is described as be the largest exhibition of Celtic artefacts in the last thirty years, including some objects never before exhibited in Germany.

This is a joint production from the Archaeological Museum of Baden-Württemberg and the Landesmuseum Wuerttemberg in cooperation with the State Conservation Office in Stuttgart Regional Council and the Historical Museum in Bern.

The Baden-Württemberg State Museum of Archaeology “Centers of Power” exhibit themes is the evolution of Celtic civilization in Central and Western Europe between the 7th and 1st centuries BC, or from the start of the Iron Age to the arrival of the Romans.

The “Altes Schloss” “Treasures of Art” focuses on the art of the ancient Celts. The exhibits include objects from the Heuneburg burial of an aristocratic woman discovered in 2010. This is one of the most important, and richest Celtic finds ever. The burial site was discovered intact, which meant it could be properly, carefully excavated and recorded.

(Hat tip to Medieval Material Culture‘s Karen Larsdatter.)

Intact Tomb of a Celtic Noblewoman Found in Heuneberg

image of a decorated, ornate gold ring from the Heuneberg excavation Photo by Patrick Seeger dpa/lsw

An intact aristocratic tomb of a Hallstatt-era woman was discovered in Heunenberg, Germany in December of 2010. Heuneberg (near Herbertingen in southern Germany) is a known center of Hallstatt and La Tène cultures, generally lumped together as “Celtic.” Excavations in and around the Heuneberg hillfort and the earlier middle Bronze-age (c. 15th to 12th century BCE) site began in the 1800s, and have resulted in a museum. The area is known for several cemetery mounds, many of which have revealed rich grave goods including imported Greek vessels, amber, gold, and a strikingly decorated local style of ornamented pottery, with scored lines and punching decorations carefully pigmented.

The December 2010 excavation discovered an intact four by five meters enclosed tomb, complete with intact oak floor timbers. After a preliminary excavation, the entire site 80-ton site, including surrounding soil, was extracted and moved to a laboratory in Ludwigsburg where microscopic examination of small pieces of organic matter and fragments of clothing could take place. The site has resulted in not only richly decorated jewelry in gold, amber and pearls, but textiles, pottery, and tools. The excavation is under the direction of Dirk Krausse. It is likely, given the care in excavating the site, that it will prove even more important than the Hochdorf prince’s grave.

The oak was preserved so well by the boggy soil that it has allowed the site to be dated to c. 7th century BCE, the height of the settlement’s activity, 2600 years ago. The trees used to make the floor were felled 2,620 years age.

The tomb contained the skeletal remains of a woman and a child. If we assume the trees were cut specifically for the tomb, the woman would have died in 609 BCE. She appears to have been between 30 and 40.

Yes, It’s Saint Patrick’s Day

Image of Saint Patrick's Bell, Armagh, Ireland

Saint Patrick’s Bell

As a Celticist, I have an abiding interest in Irish culture, and around March 17, so, apparently, does most of the United States. I’ve written a rant about Irish cultural myths, I’ve written about the true place of corned beef in terms of Irish culture, genuinely Irish food, like Irish Soda Bread, colcannon, Guinness, and Irish Whisky, and even Irish loan words in English, and the real nature of Leprechauns.

All of that said St. Patrick seems to have been a fifth century Romano-Britain, a speaker of a language closely related to Welsh, before he became the national saint of Ireland.

Happy Burns Night

Robert Burns was born 251 years ago today in Ayrshire, Scotland in 1759. Much to my delight, the BBC has begun a site about Burns, featuring his poetry in partially uncensored form. You can read the true lyrics of “John Anderson My Joe, John,” though “Comin’ through the Rye” is still much expurgated. One of the best things about the site is that you can hear 386 poems read by native Scots.

Iron Men, Natural History Magazine, and Simon James

Via the customary cursory glace at my referrals, I noticed that a new article on the Natural History magazine Web site links to me via the following:

At Lisa L. Spangenberg’s Digital Medievalist site you can find a good list of Celtic Web Resources (scroll down). At one of them, Simon James’s Ancient Celts Page, the author, who is an archaeologist at the University of Leicester in England, presents alternative views on this culture. After presenting the conventional wisdom, he gives an alternate history of “Celticness,” which examines the justification for unifying so many tribes under one banner—with particular attention to the British Isles.

I very much respect the work of Professor James. He’s an excellent archaeologist, and I do understand the problems of referring to a huge span of, what, three thousand years of history, and a geographical reach that covers most of Europe and a decent chunk of the Middle East as “Celtic.” The also fabulous Barry Cunliffe, another archaeologist, shares some of the same concerns.


The Celtic languages are:

  1. Clearly related, with a single common ancestor.
  2. They share myths and laws and motifs not only with other Indo-European cultures, but with each others—right down to the names, never mind the stories.
  3. There are also shared myths, etymologies, laws, and practices, that are unique to Celtic languages, and shared among Celtic languages.

I note that Professor James largely ignores Celtic languages and linguistics; I really wish he wouldn’t. I realize the enormous cultural differences over time and geography—these are especially apparent in terms of archaeology and art—but given that the peoples who we associate with Celtic in terms of pre industrial history spoke a Celtic language, I assert that it is perfectly reasonable to refer to those peoples as Celts, however we decide to bento-box their artifacts.

Things in Honor Of St. Patrick

Image of Saint Patrick's Bell, Armagh, Ireland

Saint Patrick’s Bell

I’ve been blogging for dollars elsewhere, of late. But it occurs to me that this post on Guinness might interest some people, as might this post on Patrick, Bridget, Beer and fulacht fiadh.

It is a little disconcerting to discover how very few people in the U.S. even realize that Patrick was a Brythonic speaker, that is, he was from Britain, and almost certainly spoke an ancestor language of Modern Welsh. I suspect that to the Irish in Ireland, the American preoccupation with Patrick and beer on the 17th of March seems very very odd indeed.

Celtic Wine

The drink of choice among the wealthy is wine brought from Italy or the region of Massalia. It is normally drunk unmixed with water, although sometimes water is added.

Athaneus (fl. c. C. E. 200) Deipnosophistae trans. Phillip Freeman. (John T. Koch and John Carey eds. The Celtic Heroic Age. Celtic Studies Publications:
Maldon, MA, 1995).

There are a number of similar references in Classical sources to the Celts’ fondness for wine. Most references emphasize that the wine was unwatered, and that drunkenness was common. Drunkenness is one of the most common slurs cast at any “barbarians, yet there does seem to be some corroborating evidence regarding Celtic fondness for wine. There are the many amphorae found pretty much everywhere the Celts were found, including Britain.

And now, thanks to Luca Sormani, from Como, and Fulvio Pescarolo, from Robbio near Milan, both part of Italy’s northern region, you can buy a replica clay wine flask containing 80 centilitres of Uinom Laevum made with ancient recipes from grapes grown on a farm using ancient Celtic agricultural methods, and ancient Celtic for 140-160 euros ($170-$195). You can read Reuters’ take on the story here.

The Celts in question are the Insubri, the Boii and the Senoni, who migrated to the northerm Italian area known as Liguria (as in the Continental Celtic langauge Ligurian) during Rome’s Tarquin era, around 500 B. C. E. The region is the same area where the real Lambrusco is made. The techniques used to make the wine are based on the “Arbustum Gallicum” described by Roman historian Columella, in De Re Rustica. The soil, deposited by river, is sandy, and swampy, creating very specific growing conditions. There’s a reasonable description of the horticultural methods, in particular the way the vines are deliberately kept low, and the use of wooden casks (a Celtic innovation) here, in Italian.

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It’s not Medieval, but It is Irish: On Irish Traditonal Music

For the last couple of days, I’ve been tormented by various people’s organizations’ ideas of what Irish music sounds like; mostly it’s been sort of like elevator music in dialect. If I’m lucky, it’s been Enya. Here are some alternatives.

The Chieftains

You can’t really talk about traditional Irish music without mentioning the Chieftains. They brought traditional musicians into the twentieth century, aiding in not just popularizing Irish music all over the world, to generations, but doing an enmourmousservice in preserving the tradition. The Best of the Chieftains is a compilation from three of the earlier, and best, of the Chieftains’ albums: The Chieftains 7, The Chieftains 8, and Boil the Breakfast Early—three of the band’s recordings from the late 1970s. You”ll hear former members Matt Molloy on flute and vocalist/bodhran player Kevin Cunniffe now better known from Planxty, the Bothy band and solo performances. I’m particularly fond of “Boil The Breakfast Early” and “The Job of Journeywork.”

Gaelic Storm

This is a compilation album, featuring tunes from the previous three albums, with a couple of new ones. I think this is an excellent way to try Gaelic Storm. They began to become popular outside of Santa Monica, where they began as the favorite at a local Irish bar, after their appearance in the steerage scene of the film Titanic. My favorite of all their songs is “Johnny Jump Up,” about the mystical powers of cider. They’re a bar band, but they’re full of energy and lots of fun to listen to, even if you don’t dance.

Patrick Ball

Turlough O’Carolan (Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin) was a blind Irish harper and composer who lived 1670 to 1738. He left a legacy of fabulous music. To be fair, it’s clear that Turolough was well educated in current musical styles, but still, there’s much in the music he left us that is not typical of music in the eighteenth century. This album, which features the music of O’Carolan, is a lovely introduction to O’Carolan’s music, and a fine example of Patrick Ball’s talents.

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