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article imageBeer and wine archaeologist studies ancient stains

By Elizabeth Cunningham Perkins     Aug 4, 2011 in Science
Archaeologist Patrick McGovern discovers details about ancient cultures -- their trade routes, agricultural practices and more -- by chemically analyzing stains on pot shards, a specialty he innovated, according to a recent Smithsonian profile.
With undergraduate work in organic chemistry and a doctorate in Middle Eastern archaeology, and with a mixed lineage of bar owning Irish and teetotaling Norwegian ancestors to inspire him, McGovern appears to have been destined to pop open this new academic niche, the Smithsonian reported:
In 1988, a University of Pennsylvania (Penn) colleague happened to show him a 5000-year-old, red-stained, narrow-necked clay jar from Iran’s Godin Tepe site, and he found himself intrigued, wondering what chemical compounds could be detectable, after so long a time, that could identify the red marks as wine residue.
The Feigl spot test, liquid chromatography and infrared spectrometry all showed the presence of tartaric acid in the sample, a likely chemical "fingerprint" for wine.
In 1990, the paper McGovern published through Penn about his findings drew the attention of California wine mogul Robert Mondavi, who became so enthused over the possibilities of this new archaeological perspective, he gathered scholars and experts at a extravagantly provisioned conference, inaugurating the field of wine and beer archaeology.
Since then, McGovern, now director of Penn's Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health, has refined the science of chemically analyzing pot stains, written books about his findings and invented new brews based upon ancient formulas.
Besides precipitating new knowledge from forgotten fragments from old archaeological digs, and consulting with colleagues about new findings with possible booze stains, he searches for clues about the evolution of human nature in the dried dregs and faded residues, having concluded that imbibing and getting buzzed are key to the development of humanity.
Drinking and getting drunk may be behind settlement, trade and agricultural patterns, as well as the development and blossoming of symbolic and inventive thinking, according to McGovern and other "beer before bread" archaeological theorists.
A recent project involves determining the true origins of French wine making, which McGovern suspects may trace back to Etruria, a region located within present-day central Italy.
The Penn Museum website states that "Dr. Pat" McGovern is known around there as the "Indiana Jones of Ancient Ales, Wines, and Extreme Beverages."
More about beer archaeology, wine archaeology, Archaeology, Beer, Wine
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