Relatively speaking, there is a significant amount of archaeological evidence for the use of meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) in ancient fermented beverages. Much of this evidence is from Bronze Age sites (mostly 2nd millennium BCE), but there are some Iron Age sites (contemporary with classical Greece and Rome) where meadowsweet residues were found. This chronological distribution may reflect changes in practice over time, but it is also possible that the distinction may be due to different sampling and scientific strategies by archaeologists.
Meadowsweet was predominately found in sites located in northern Europe – especially in Scandinavia and Britain. However, this distribution is not absolute. Archaeobotanical evidence demonstrates a limited distribution in modern Austria and Germany – regions situated within the Greek and Roman spheres of influence. Meadowsweet the plant, in fact, has a much broader geographic distribution, and is found in damp areas and woodlands throughout Europe and the Near East, including certain areas of the Mediterranean. It is, therefore, quite likely that the plant was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans in some context. We previously discussed the potential references to this plant in ancient texts in which its medicinal qualities are described.
In the following section, I summarize the available archaeological evidence for meadowsweet and fermented beverages (following Guerra-Doce 2015; Moe and Oeggl 2014; Nelson 2001). Meadowsweet is identified, in most cases, by residue analysis, but the presence of meadowsweet residue/pollen alone is not necessarily indicative of its use in fermented beverages. It must be considered in its context, i.e. together with other evidence for fermentation, like beer stone. Moe and Oeggl (2014), for instance, argue that the use of meadowsweet for mead can be indirectly identified by the amount of meadowsweet pollen relative to other insect-pollinated taxa in the residue. Meadowsweet pollens are not uncommon in ancient honey residues, but several sites suggest an amount of that pollen (above 1-2%) beyond what is expected for a honey residue (i.e. more meadowsweet than the bees would have carried). As a result, Moe and Oeggl believe that the greater amounts of meadowsweet (in some instances more than 17%) are indicative of the addition of the flower as a flavoring agent. Because meadowsweet has traditionally been used for mead and other alcoholic beverage, the higher percentage of meadowsweet must indicates a mead or (if grains are present) a beer-honey mixture. I indicate these identifications with an *, below. Settlements contemporary with the Greek and Roman societies are indicated in bold.
*Birka, Sweden (Viking Age, 8th-10th c. CE) – The analysis of human coprolites (yup, poop!) suggested the consumption of honey at the site (see also Karlsson 2000). The significantly higher values of meadowsweet relative to all other insect-pollinated taxa indicate its function as an additive to the honey or, more likely, mead.
*Thuringen, Germany (5th-8th c. CE) – Two pots were analyzed. The larger most likely contained honey or mead because 16% of the pollen was meadowsweet (Jacob 1979). Moe and Oeggl (2014, 523) identify this as a mead additive.
*Niedererlbach, Bavaria, Germany (Late Hallstatt/Early La Tene period/Celtic period; ca. 500-100 BCE) – A Bronze bowl was excavated from a rich woman’s grave that contained residue typical of honey. Meadowsweet was the dominant taxon with values of about 16% (Rosch 1999; 2005).
*Glauberg, northeast of Frankfurt am Main, Germany (ca. 400 BCE) – Rosch analyzed the pollen from a bronze vessel and identified honey from the residue. A large amount of meadowsweet was also found (Rosch 1999). Moe and Oeggl (2014, 522) believe this suggests a meadowsweet mead mead.
*Hochdorf, Heuneburge, Germany (late Halstatt/early La Tene period, ca. 5th c. BCE) – Again, Rosch identifies honey in two samples (Rosch 1999). Only 1-2% of the pollen, however, is meadowsweet. Moe and Oeggl (2014, 522) are uncertain that this meets the threshold to identify the original liquid as mead.
*Ferro-Scachtricht, Austria (6th-4th c. BCE) – the analysis of human coprolites suggest the consumption of honey. For Moe and Oeggl (2014), the significantly higher values of meadowsweet relative to all other insect-pollinated taxa indicate its function as an additive to the honey or, more likely, mead.
Bregninge, Island of Zealand, Denmark (late 2nd millennium BCE) – Pollen from lime trees, meadowsweet, white clover, various Compositae, and knotgrass were found in a burial (Nielsen 1988). This was likely a mead.
Egtved, southern Jutland, Denmark (late 2nd millennium BCE) – A birch bark bucket was found in the grave of a young woman. This bucket was subject to analysis; traces of lime tree honey, meadowsweet, white clover, wheat grains, bog myrtle, and cowberry/cranberry were found. This was perhaps a beer, fruit wine, grog, or hybrid fermented beverage (Thomsen 1929; see also Behre 1999; Dickson and Dickson 2000, 81; Koch 2003, 129; Guerra-doce 2015, 768).
Nandrup, Island of Mors, Demark (late 2nd millennium BCE) – Residues found in the burial of a Bronze Age man include a large amount of lime tree pollen, as well as the pollen of white clover and meadowsweet. This is suggestive of a honey or mead, (Broholm and Hald 1939).
Ashgrove, Fife, Scotland (ca. 1450-1100 BCE) – A beaker found in the cist burial of a man contained the remains of lime pollen (Tilia cordata) (for honey/mead), with meadowsweet, heather, and ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) (Dickson 1978).
North Mains, Strathallan, Perthshire, Scotland (ca. 1600-1500 BCE) – A vessel that was buried with a woman in a Neolithic grave was subjected to residue analysis. High percentages of cereal and meadowsweet pollen were foundd. This has been identified as a porridge, fermented ale, or extract (Barclay 1983; see also Dineley 1996; Dickson and Dickson 2000: 82; Guerra-doce 2015, 768).
Kinloch Bay, Island of Rhum, Scotland (Neolithic-2nd mill BC) – Ale was identified in the residues found on a vessel from the settlement (Wickham-Jones 1990). These residues include cereal-type pollen, ling (Calluna vilgaris), royal fern (Osmunda regalis) and meadowsweet.
*Kodiani burial mound, Southern Georgia (country) (2700-2400 BCE) – Analysis revealed pollen from insect-pollinated taxa within the Rosaceae family, as well as very large amounts of meadowsweet pollen. The excavators identified the residue as honey (Kvavadze, et al. 2007). Moe and Oeggl (2014, 522), however, suggest that the large amount of meadowsweet is evidence for mead production.
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Broholm, H.C. and M. Hald, 1939. “Skrydstrupfundet.” Nordiske Fortidsminder 3(2-6): 215-347.
Dickson, J.H. 1978. “Bronze Age Mead.” Antiquity 52(205): 108-113.
Dickson, C. and J.H. Dickson, 2000. Plants and People in Ancient Scotland. Brimscombe Port.
Dineley, M. 1996. “Finding Magic in Stone Age Real Ale.” British Archaeology 9:1-2.
Guerra-Doce, E. 205. “The Origins of Inebriation: Archaeological Evidence of the Consumption of Fermented Beverages in Prehistoric Eurasia.” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 22: 751-782.
Jacob, H. 1979. “Pollenanalytische Untersuchung von merowinger-zeitlichen Honigresten.” Alt Thur. 16:112-119.
Karlsson, S. 2000 “Studies of coprolites from the Viking Age Birka.” In Vegetation history as a key to living conditions for domestic animals and man in Viking Age Birka, edited by S. Karlsson, 1-34. Stockholm University, Stockholm.
Koch, E. 2003. “Mead, chiefs, and feasts in later prehistoric Europe.” In Food, culture and identity in the Neolithic and early Bronze Age. British Archaeological Reports International Series III.7, edited by M. Parker Pearson, 125-143. Oxford: Archaeopress.
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Moe, D. and K. Oeggl, 2014. “Palynological evidence of mead: a prehistoric drink dating back to the 3rd millennium B.C.” Veget. Hist. Archaeobot 23: 515-526.
Nelson, M.C. 2001. “Beer in Greco-Roman Antiquity.” Ph.D. diss., U. of British Columbia.
Nielsen, S. 1988. “Bronzeadergravene fra Bregninge.” Anitkvariske Studier 2: 15-34.
Rosch, M. 1999. “Evaluation of honey residues from Iron Age hill-top sites in southwestern Germany: implications for local and regional land use and vegetation dynamics.” Veget. Hist. Archaeobot 8: 105-112.
Rosch, M. 2005. “Pollen analysis of the contents of excavated vessels-direct archaeobotanical evidence of beverages.” Veget. Hist. Archaeobot 14: 179-188.
Thomsen, T. 1929. “Egekistefundet fra Egtved, fra den aeldre Bronzealder.” Nordiske Fortidsminder 2(4): 165-214.
Wickham-Jones, C.J. 1990. Rhum: Mesolithic and Later Sites at Kinloch. Society of Antiquaries Monograph Series 7. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
Wikimedia Commons. Picea abies pollen by Martin D. Adamiker.