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On the Origin of Fermentation and Mead in Egypt

The ancient Egyptians were known to be avid practitioners of fermentation. They purposefully created alcohol for the purpose of consumption. Fermentation occurs when unicellular organisms known as yeast consume sugars and convert them to alcohol and carbon dioxide over the course of several weeks. For example, beer is formed when sugars extracted from grains are consumed by yeast. Ancient Egyptian beer (not like the beer of today) was known to be produced on a large scale for sale and consumption. Evidence of industrial beer brewing facilities have been discovered at urban sites across the land including Hierakonpolis. Beer, however, was not the only fermented beverage to be had in ancient Egypt.  Also, I do not believe it is the oldest fermented beverage to be created in the region. The Egyptians were avid mead drinkers as well.

What is mead? Mead is essentially fermented honey. Honey is a naturally occurring and highly caloric food, which would prove to be of immense value in any ancient society.  This was no different in Egypt where honey became of great importance. It was even mentioned as a fermentable in the Hymn to Ninkasi, a poem for the goddess of fermentation. As further evidence for the significance of honey is the existence of an Egyptian god of fertility, Min, who was referred to as the “master of wild bees”. Also, manuscript evidence seems to point to royally commissioned honey hunting parties protected by guards of archers. Honey was domesticated in the form of beekeeping to increase access to the supply.

So how was mead discovered in ancient times? I’m going to suggest a hypothesis put forth by Ken Schramm about the origin of mead/fermentation as a happenstance discovery in Egypt based on the following premises: 1) Yeast cells are found everywhere in the wild, floating around in the air and in/on things and 2) Honey hunters went on expeditions to retrieve honey and required vessels for storage.

Imagine you are a honey hunter and you have an animal-skin for carrying your water for the long journey and you come across a nice fat beehive. Not wanting the honey to go to waste and realizing your water skin is not full, you decide to be as efficient as possible and fill your skin with honey to take back home. After you arrive home, you put the water skin in storage until the honey is required. However, after a few days you notice the skin started to swell up and you open it to find the honey has mixed with the leftover water in your animal skin and it is a little bubbly and churning You decide to take a drink of the sweet liquid and to your surprise it tastes wonderful and a little hot. After a few more gulps you start to feel a little funny and happy.

What magic happened that turned the contents of your water skin into this elixir of the gods? We know now that a yeast culture must have been present in the animal skin that was then introduced to the buffet of sugar that honey provided. Fermentation occurred and mead was introduced to the population of Egypt. It would have been relatively simple to recreate the process and through time, perfect the art of fermentation of not only honey but other sugars as well.

Fermentation became ingrained in Egyptian society and later expanded to fermenting beer as a source of both income and calories. Many of these ancient practices are still happening today, although it looks much different now.

Side note: Mead would later be thought to be an aphrodisiac, probably because of the effects of alcohol and lowering the inhibition of selecting mates, which would improve chances of reproduction. It is rumored that the term “honeymoon” comes from the gift of mead at weddings to help the newlywed couple be more fertile for the month following the marriage.

Crane, E. (1999).  The World History of Bee Keeping and Honey Hunting. London: Gerald Duckworth and Company Ltd.

Schramm, K.  (2003).The Compleat Meadmaker. Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications.

Tombs of the Elite

The first thing  that interested me in the super tombs of the Hierakonpolis was their tremendous size.  One of the first super tombs unearthed in Hierakonpolis was 5.5 meters by 3 meters in size; it was the largest tomb to be discovered at the HK6 site that dated to the Naqada II period at that time. Later on large halls were excavated that were in close proximity to the super tombs. Now, when considering the fact that one of the largest structures unearthed at HK6 was 5.5 meters by 3 meters, the halls which were recorded as 15 meters by 10.5 meters practically dwarf the tombs themselves. Of the eight large halls that were discovered, each held a plethora of mortuary items that were both elegant and unique. In the majority of the  halls there were ceramics and ostrich eggs with carvings on them and palettes and many more items. One of these large halls even included the life size marble statue discussed in class. These structures that are tremendous in size prove the complexity of the people if they can become this deeply immersed in mortuary practices and privileges. But it even shows how incredibly important those people who live in the upper echelon of society were to the rest of their people.

Now, for me, the most important question is why. These super tombs and their surrounding structures were essentially the first of their kind. What happened in Hierakonpolis that made this upscale move to increase the mortuary importance of the elite? I mean,  even the animals of the elite were buried in structures around them. One of the animal tombs was even the final resting place of an elephant. I don’t care how much I love my mother, I am not digging an elephant grave next to hers just to honor her in the afterlife. So, why then did the people of Hierakonpolis decide to elate the levels of those dead elite beyond what they already were? Before Hierakonpolis, the elite were honored through mortuary practices, but nothing even close to this scale. At one time it was believed that mortuary practices of this large of a proportion didn’t even exist in the predynastic era, and yet here it is years before it was even considered possible. The fact that this happened is just such an interesting concept to me and I hope that someone else will find this subject as interesting as I do so they can help to point me in the right direction.

Curiosity Regarding Egypt’s Unification

For years curiosity about Egypt has lingered in my mind. I knew all of the basics that every person learns – that there were pyramids and pharaohs and the Nile River. However, I have finally learned that there is so much more to the Egyptian historical record than just these things. What has intrigued me the most within the past few lectures are the three items that are viewed as “evidence for political control” in contribution to Upper and Lower Egypt’s unification. I for one did not even know that Egypt had been separated in the past, but now that I do I am extremely curious about the separation and more importantly how the two became one, and what these artifacts mean in respect to the unification.

In reference to the three items – Narmer Palette, Scorpion Macehead and Towns Palette – I have many thoughts. Now that we know that the stories these artifacts supposedly tell are not one-hundred percent accurate based on the archaeological record, I am anxious to know what these truly signify. I believe that the stories that we are told these express are relevant to what was really being portrayed, meaning that these events did happen. I would love to know, however,  what their absolute significance in Egypt’s history are if they are not the “actual” unification of Upper and Lower Egypt.

Taking into consideration the Narmer Palette, for example. We are told that this scene is showing Narmer destroying Buto and in turn taking control over the north, making this “the unification moment.” We know of course that there is not a specific unification moment, but I do wonder if this is still a significant event that assisted in the siege, if it was a siege at all. Knowing that Buto was the capitol of Lower Egypt, I cannot see why this wouldn’t take precedence over other instances which had happened prior. The palette is, in fact, showing a ruler taking over others, and if the dates are relevant, I wonder if this was one of many major events that assisted in the unification.

The Scorpion Macehead makes similar ideas cross my mind, but with one significant difference that I cannot help but notice. The difference is in reference to the Rekhyt birds that are shown. It is easy to jump to conclusions based on the depiction that they (the districts which the birds symbolize) are being sieged, but, what if they are going with the ruler willingly? What if, instead of being unwillingly taken over, the districts of Lower Egypt are choosing to join Upper Egypt. There are plenty of factors that could lead to this decision: resources, agriculture, trade, anything that we have seen cause unification of cultures in the past.

Of course there is no true way to find perfect answers on the matter without a time machine, but I do hope that within my lifetime more answers are found on this subject because my curiosity will forever linger.