Discovery highlights innovative and complex fermented beverages of northern Europe in the Bronze and Iron Ages.
A blazing fire was not the only thing to keep Bronze and Iron Age Scandinavians warm through long cold winters. From northwest Denmark, circa 1500-1300 BC, to the Swedish island of Gotland as late as the first century AD, Nordic peoples were imbibing an alcoholic “grog” or extreme hybrid beverage rich in local ingredients, including honey, bog cranberry, lingonberry, bog myrtle, yarrow, juniper, birch tree resin, and cereals including wheat, barley and/or rye —and sometimes, grape wine imported from southern or central Europe.
New research published in the Danish Journal of Archaeology examines evidence derived from samples inside pottery and bronze drinking vessels and strainers from four sites in Demark and Sweden. The research proves the existence of an early, widespread, and long-lived Nordic grog tradition, one with distinctive flavors and probable medicinal purposes—and the first chemically attested evidence for the importation of grape wine from southern or central Europe as early as 1100 BC, demonstrating both the social and cultural prestige attached to wine, and the presence of an active trading network across Europe—more than 3,000 years ago.
“Far from being the barbarians so vividly described by ancient Greeks and Romans, the early Scandinavians, northern inhabitants of so-called Proxima Thule, emerge with this new evidence as a people with an innovative flair for using available natural products in the making of distinctive fermented beverages,” notes Dr. Patrick E. McGovern, lead author of the paper. “They were not averse to adopting the accoutrements of southern or central Europeans, drinking their preferred beverages out of imported and often ostentatiously grand vessels. They were also not averse to importing and drinking the southern beverage of preference, grape wine, though sometimes mixed with local ingredients.”
To reach their conclusions the researchers, based at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, obtained ancient residue samples from four sites in a 150-mile radius of southern Sweden and encompassing Denmark. The oldest, dated 1500 – 1300 BC, was from Nandrup in northwestern Denmark, where a warrior prince had been buried in an oak coffin with a massively hafted bronze sword, battle-ax, and pottery jar whose interior was covered with a dark residue that was sampled. A second Danish sample, dated to a later phase of the Nordic Bronze Age from about 1100 – 500 BC, came from a pit hoard at Kostræde, southwest of Copenhagen. A brownish residue filling a perforation of a bronze strainer, the earliest strainer yet recovered in the region, was sampled. A third Danish sample was a dark residue on the interior base of a large bronze bucket from inside a wooden coffin of a 30-year-old woman, dating to the Early Roman Iron Age, about 200 BC, at Juellinge on the island of Lolland, southwest of Kostræde. The bucket was part of a standard, imported Roman wine-set, and the woman held the strainer-cup in her right hand. A reddish-brown residue filling the holes and interior of a strainer-cup, again part of imported Roman wine-set, provided the fourth sample. Dating to the first century AD, the strainer-cup was excavated from a hoard, which also included a large gold torque or neck ring and a pair of bronze bells, at Havor on the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea.
According to Dr. McGovern, the importation of southern wine grew apace in the Bronze and Iron Ages, and eventually eclipsed the grog tradition - but never completely. Many of the ingredients in Nordic grog went on to be consumed in birch beer and as the principal bittering agents (so-called gruit) of medieval beers, before hops gained popularity, and the German purity law (Reinheitsgebot) which limited ingredients of beer to barley, hops and water was enacted in Bavaria in 1516 and eventually became the norm in northern Europe.
“About the closest thing to the grog today is produced on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea,” Dr. McGovern noted. “You can taste Gotlandsdryka in farmhouses. It’s made from barley, honey, juniper, and other herbs like those in the ancient version.”