Drinking alcohol in Mesopotamia

Imbibing alcohol through a straw is a scene shown on Early Dynastic Mesopotamian and Dilmunite glyptic and long assumed to be a Sumerian invention (Figure 1)1.


Figure 1. Reconstruction of a Sumerian feast (detail from Life magazine, 1956)

Modern consumption studies indicate that drinking in this manner does not directly affect your absorption rate but does mean you can drink faster and thus feel the effect more quickly2. Drinking through a straw has other effects too as it intensifies the flavour and warms liquids in the mouth, and another study concluded that:

the straw reduces the amount of liquid you take in, which means it heats up faster in your mouth and thus produces more complex aromas, which leads to enhanced flavors, since … our sense of smell contributes mightily to our sense of taste. But that’s not all … straws also improve air circulation in the mouth while you’re drinking, which in turn leads to even more VOCs, more aromas, and more flavor. That’s the genius of straws’.3

The first hint that this form of drinking extended deep into antiquity came with the discovery of Mesopotamian cylinder seals showing individuals using straws to drink from jars. Proof of this came from the ‘death pit’ of queen Pu-abi, P.G. 800, in the ‘Royal Cemetery’ at Ur (Figure 2).


 Figure 2. Decorated drinking-straw, as reconstructed


When excavated, one of the finds was described as follows: ‘Sceptre? made of cylindrical length of lapis + gold strung on silver wire, or slender rod = it lay along the end of the box + one end was bent down into the large silver pot U[10462] = also half in this was a L-shaped piece of silver tube  which is probably the head of the sceptre. Length of stem 093, diam 001, L of silver head 019, L of arm of head 014’. The field notes list it as a ‘staff (?) of gold and lapis lying along end of coffin, one part of it inside a [silver] bowl’4.

The excavation archive for this object explicitly describes the find as ‘resting against the rim + projecting above it a silver drinking tube’, hence the annotation of the entry for U.10450 [121412]. The final report summarised the find thus: ‘Against the north-east wall … was a silver pot of Type 10, U.10462, inside which was another silver bowl in very bad condition (U. 10461) and also the mouthpiece of (31), a long drinking-tube of silver decorated with rings of lapis-lazuli and gold and having this silver mouthpiece which was bent at right angles so as to fit more easily into the pot, U.10450’5. The plan confirms that it was found in a curving position, not rigid and straight as currently reconstructed (Figure 3)6.


Figure 3. Detail of the plan of Pu-abi’s grave, illustrating how drinking-straws were found in situ at the centre of the grave pit (after Woolley 1934: vol. II, pl. 36)

Five other straws were found in Pu-abi’s tomb-chamber, one also of copper with lapis beads and measuring at least 45 cm long (U.10911), the second of gold foil originally on a reed stem and measuring 1.36 m in length (U.10855a), and the remainder of silver ‘in very bad condition’ (U.10915); the first two were found inserted into carinated silver jars (U. 10910, U.10855), but the last three were within a gold bowl (U.10851) placed to the right of the head of her bier7.

In 1970, the silver straw in the British Museum was examined in closer detail by a highly skilled metal conservator, Ian McIntyre, and he noted several important points8. Emission spectroscopy of the silver proved it to be relatively pure, but with a small amount of copper and other trace elements. It was found that there was a narrow hole along the centre of the corroded copper core on which the alternating gold and lapis lazuli beads had been threaded, but these had split when the copper corroded. It has been stated that remains of reed were found within the tube but this seems to be assumption rather than fact (Figure 4). The final reconstruction presents the straw as a rigid wand, as it was first interpreted, but the object should in future be re-mounted with the mouthpiece at 90 degrees as discovered.


Figure 4. Section through the drinking-straw

No undecorated copper straws have been recognised, and simple reed straws, which must have been the norm, have not survived. This will apply to other regions, such as the Persian Gulf, where such straws are shown being used on the local glyptic, but the recognition that Pu-abi’s straw was essentially a rolled narrow copper tube, with additional decoration as befitted her status, raises the possibility of re-interpreting fragmented remains of plain copper tubes as pieces of the more customary drinking equipment. Moreover, the fact that two of her straws were associated with a particular form of jar suggests that this may have had a specific function and that all jars of this type were used to contain beer.

The origin and development of drinking-straws lies outside the scope of this short contribution, but in 2022 an important re-interpretation was published of a set of eight gold and silver tubes found in 1897 next to the right side of a body buried in a huge tomb at Maikop, in the north-west Caucasus. Now exhibited in one of the Treasury Rooms of the State Hermitage Museum (Figure 5), they measure 1.12 m long, and are made of short coiled strips which appear to have been gently hot-worked along the seams and then inserted into one another, and one end of each is perforated with additional narrow slits around the walls (Figure 6). Four of these tubes also have a small attached perforated bull figure which originally slid along it to rest near the opposite end. Long regarded as sceptres or canopy support poles, they have now been convincingly re-interpreted as drinking tubes9. The Maikop culture was originally thought to date to about the same period as the Royal Cemetery at Ur, but radiocarbon dates have now pushed it back to 3700–3000/2900 BC10, thus making them the earliest identified examples.

      
Figure 5. View of the drinking-straw              Figure 6. The design of the straw components from the Maikop kurgan:
from Maikop as displayed in the State          1) one of eight silver perforated tips; 2) joint between two segments of the silver
Hermitage Museum (photograph:                 tube, and longitudinal seam;  3–5) types of fittings; 6) probable soldered
State Hermitage Museum)                            longitudinal seam (photographs: V. Trifonov)

 These tubes therefore extend the evidence for such a form of drinking from Sumer and the Persian Gulf into the Caucasus, and raise questions as to its origin. The authors of the recent Maikop study cite a seal from Tepe Gawra and a sealing from Chogha Mish as evidence for straw drinking in the 4th millennium BC in northern Mesopotamia and south-west Iran respectively, but the first actually shows two men stirring the contents of a large jar11, and the second shows a pair of boats with anthropomorphic prows12.

The iconography of straw drinking first appears in Mesopotamia in the Early Dynastic period. Rather than being a Sumerian (or proto-Sumerian) invention previously interpreted from a Mesopotamia-centric perspective, this may instead be a custom introduced from the far north13. The 4th millennium BC saw southern Mesopotamia intruding as far as south-east Turkey when Late Uruk colonies began to penetrate via the Euphrates corridor, and this process must have broadened the Mesopotamian mind, with the city of Uruk as the epicentre of reception and transmission of new ideas. Thereafter, the strong Early Trans-Caucasian / Kura-Araxes culture dominated eastern Anatolia and the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates, major sites either abandoned, as in the case of Habuba Kabira, or violently destroyed, as at Arslantepe, where a large kurgan was erected on top of the mound as a highly visible statement of the dominant new culture14. The 3rd millennium BC Sumerian city-states instead switched their focus to the east, with evidence for trade, contacts and new ideas being exchanged with the elites along the Persian Gulf, in the Indus region, eastern Iran and Central Asia.

But what were they drinking? The usual assumption is that it was a form of thick beer which required filters on the lower end to prevent coarse particles from clogging the straw or ruining the taste, and traces of barley starch granules and cereal phytoliths in one of the silver tube strainers from Maikop may support this. Copper filters of this type are more commonly found in the 2nd millennium BC but most must have simply been made of organic material which does not survive or unrecognised in excavation. The capacity of the jar found next to the straws in the Maikop burial was 32 litres, thus each participant could have consumed up to seven pints.


Pu-abi was not a solitary drinker, as the upper register one of her seals confirms (Figure 7), and her drinking pots must therefore have also been shared with others. But who were they? Were they all women?

Figure 7. Depiction of drinking on a cylinder seal from Pu-abi’s tomb (BM 121545)

Straw-drinking helps preserve the lipstick after all, and her grave did contain multiple cosmetic-sets15. Did each person have their own personal straw? How were these stored and cleaned? By analogy with the flexible tubes used for water-pipes, were they kept in special cases, their flavoured mouth-pieces changed at regular intervals, and servants employed by the richest just to look after them? A mid-19th century description of Istanbul offers one analogy:

‘large sums are lavished by Turks of all ranks upon pipes: they attach as much importance to the possession of a fine assortment, as Europeans do to that of choice pictures or plate … in large establishments, where many visitors are received, a store of some fifteen or twenty richly ornamented pipes is required’16.

We greatly under-estimate the complexity of rituals surrounding the elite, and the full implications of how objects appeared and customs developed within the courts of antiquity, whether it be through gaming, personal appearance, musical performance, or social drinking. For each of these, there is now compelling evidence for foreign fashions being adopted among the Mesopotamian elite. The ‘Royal Game of Ur’ originated in the Indus Valley and the spread of board games in harem circles has been explored by my colleague Irving Finkel17. The cosmetic industry in Mesopotamia, eastern Iran and Central Asia became highly developed during the mid/late 3rd millennium BC, and with it came a new idea of facial whitening, albeit with the unsuspected medical complications associated with lead-based pigments which ultimately contributed to the development of wigs as substitutes for lost natural hair18. Harappan shell inlays found at Ur (unpublished) and Nuzi are identical to those found on a complete mirror box excavated in a late 3rd millennium BC elite woman’s grave at Nippur, in the latter case possibly brought as part of a personal wedding trousseau as the lady married into local society19. Equally distinctive shell inlays found near an enigmatic monumental building at an unusually large early 3rd millennium BC site in south-east Arabia were identified by the author as originally belonging to a Mesopotamian-style bull-headed lyre20.

We conclude with alcohol. Mesopotamian glyptic representations of single or paired drinkers, seated comfortably as they sup, are simplified: the conventions of perspective could not cope with the challenge of representing the awkward overlapping of figures which only began to be successfully confronted by the 5th century sculptors of Persepolis and the Parthenon (Figure 8).     Figure 8. Ancient people might have used these elongated tubes to drink beer from the same pot during ceremonial feasts or gatherings (courtesy of Antiquity)

Multiple drinkers sharing a single jar were therefore symbolised by a rayed arrangement of straws. This form of consumption was completely different to that shown on the lower register of the seal illustrated here, or on the ‘Standard of Ur’ where a row of seated men toast their leader with beakers raised in their right hands (Figure 9), although again the artistic norms prevailed as they are represented in a horizontal line rather than sitting in a cosy circle.

Figure 9. Detail of the banqueting scene on the ‘Standard of Ur’ (BM 121201)

In reconstructions of societies, ancient or modern, we risk mis-understanding, over-complicating and under-estimating common patterns of social behaviour, and, in so doing, we create artificial cultural boundaries. Objects described as ‘unique’ rarely are, ‘art for art’s sake’ is a relatively recent construct, and the role of trade as the mechanism by which objects move is a gross simplification. With these case studies and examples in mind, we must continually challenge and test preconceptions using archaeological data, logical deduction and common sense.

 

 

Bibliography
Delougaz, P. and H.J. Kantor 1996. Chogha Mish. Volume I: The First Five Seasons of Excavations 1961–1971 (edited by A. Alizadeh). Chicago: Oriental Institute.
Finkel, I.L. 2020. New light on an old game, in I.L. Finkel and St J. Simpson (eds) In Context. The Reade Festschrift: 43–51. Oxford: Archaeopress Archaeology.
Ivanova-Bieg, M. 2008. The chronology of the Maikop culture in the Northern Caucasus:  changing perspectives. Armenian Journal of Near Eastern Studies II: 7–39.
Kantor, H. 1984. The Ancestry of the Divine Boat (Sirsir?) of Early Dynastic and Akkadian Glyptic. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 43: 277–80.
Palumbi, G. 2012. The Arslantepe Royal Tomb and the ‘Manipulation’ of the Kurgan Ideology in Eastern Anatolia at the Beginning of the Third Millennium BC, in E. Borgna and S. Müller Celka (eds) Ancestral Landscapes. Burial Mounds in the Copper and Bronze Ages (Central and Eastern Europe – Balkans – Adriatic – Aegean, 4th–2nd millennium B.C. (TMO 58): 47–59. Lyon: Maison de l‘Orient et da la Méditerranée.
Piotrovskii, Yu. Yu. 2021. The Maikop Kurgan (Oshad): a Modern View, in L. Giemsch and S. Hansen (eds) The Caucasus. Bridge between the urban centres in Mesopotamia and the Pontic steppes in the 4th and 3rd millennium BC. The transfer of knowledge and technologies between East and West in the Bronze Age. Proceedings of the Caucasus conference, Frankfurt am Main, 28 November – 1 December 2018 (Schriften des Archäologischen Museums Frankfurt 34): 165–75. Regensburg: Schnell and Steiner.
Sherratt, A. 1997. Troy, Maikop, Altyn Depe: Early Bronze Age Urbanism and its Periphery, in A. Sherratt (ed.) Economy and Society in Prehistoric Europe. Changing Perspectives: 457–70. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Simpson, St J. 2021a. Heavy metal and the beauty industry: an unexpected connection from ancient Afghanistan. Academia Letters, Article 352. https://doi.org/10.20935/AL352
Simpson, St J. 2021b. The first Bronze Age bull-headed lyre from south-east Arabia? Tantalising shell inlays from the third millennium BC (Umm an-Nar) site of al-Tikha, Sultanate of Oman. ash-Sharq 5/2: 133–41.
Simpson, St J. 2022. Of boxes in the Bronze Age: Exotic Imports, Skeuomorphs and Local Crafts from Central Asia to Sumer. Al-Rafidan 43: 53–64.
Simpson, St J. 2023. Smoking and drinking: from Tell es-Sa’idiyeh to Ur, in I.L. Finkel, J.A. Fraser and St J. Simpson (eds) ‘To Aleppo gone …’: Essays in honour of Jonathan N. Tubb (Archaeopress Ancient Near Eastern Archaeology 10):  156–63. Oxford: Archaeopress Archaeology.
Tobler, A.J. 1950. Excavations at Tepe Gawra, volume II: levels IX–XX. Philadelphia: University Museum.
Trifonov, V., D. Petrov and L. Savelieva 2022. Party like a Sumerian: reinterpreting the ‘sceptres’ from the Maikop kurgan. Antiquity 96 (385): 67–84.
Verhoff, M.A., S.C. Koelzer, R. Krüll, F. Eardmann, H. Schütz and C.G. Birngrüber 2017. A contribution on the question whether drinking alcoholic beverages through a straw gets you drunk faster – Measurable effect only for strong drinks. Blutalkohol 54/2: 61–69.
White, C. 1845. Three years in Constantinople; or, domestic manners of the Turks in 1844. London: Henry Colburn (three volumes).
Woolley, C.L. 1934. The Royal Cemetery. A report on the Predynastic and Sargonid graves excavated between 1926 and 1931 (Ur Excavations II). London / Philadelphia: British Museum / University of Pennsylvania.

 

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eSKihUGnsz0 [accessed 28th April 2023] []
  2. Verhoff et al. 2017. []
  3. https://www.tastingtable.com/804213/why-your-drink-tastes-different-through-a-straw/ [accessed 10th October 2022] []
  4. British Museum/Department of the Middle East archive. []
  5. Woolley 1934: vol. I, 81. []
  6. Woolley 1934: vol. II, pl. 36. []
  7. Woolley 1934: vol. I, 89–91, 563–64. []
  8. Simpson 2023. []
  9. Trifonov, Petrov and Savelieva 2022. I am very grateful to Dr Trifonov for sharing one of the illustrations used here, and to Dr Yu. Piotrovsky for kindly sending copies of additional papers on these and other finds from Maikop (Piotrovskii 2021). []
  10. Ivanova-Bieg 2008. []
  11. Tobler 1950: 184, pl. CLXIII, no. 91. []
  12. Delougaz and Kantor 1996: part 2, pl. 156a; cf. Kantor 1984. []
  13. More familiar with the Russian and Anatolian evidence, Andrew Sherratt (1997) was an early proponent of a less Mesopotamia-centric approach to understanding these periods. []
  14. Palumbi 2012. []
  15. Woolley 1934: vol. I, 91. []
  16. White 1845: vol. II, 129. []
  17. Finkel 2020. []
  18. Simpson 2021a. []
  19. Simpson 2022b. []
  20. Simpson 2021b. The closest findspot is from a ritual deposit in a temple at Barbar on Bahrain: there the inlaid eyes of the bull-headed lyre are missing, as if the bull was put to sleep, but its mouth was open so it appeared vocal when brought to life during a performance. []

St John Simpson

I am an archaeologist and senior curator in the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum, responsible for the collections from Iran, Arabia and Central Asia, and specialising in the archaeology and material culture of the Sasanian and early Islamic periods. I am also responsible for managing relations and processes across the Museum by which stolen or illicitly trafficked antiquities identified by the Museum on behalf of law enforcement, the art trade or private individuals can be exhibited, published and repatriated to their countries of origin. I have directed excavations in Iraq and Turkmenistan, and worked on other projects in Georgia, Kuwait, Oman, the UAE, and Russia. I strongly believe that working across modern political borders helps us to better understand and appreciate cultures, ancient and modern, and that museums offer a powerful means of engaging with multiple audiences and stakeholders, inclusive of academic, popular, governmental, old and young. Archaeology and fieldwork also enable us to re-interpret old collections, and that is an essential part of museum research and curation. ORCID ID: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-9884-7637

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OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
St John Simpson (29 avril 2023). Drinking alcohol in Mesopotamia. Sociétés humaines du Proche-Orient ancien. Consulté le 15 juillet 2024 à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/b5ou


St John Simpson

I am an archaeologist and senior curator in the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum, responsible for the collections from Iran, Arabia and Central Asia, and specialising in the archaeology and material culture of the Sasanian and early Islamic periods. I am also responsible for managing relations and processes across the Museum by which stolen or illicitly trafficked antiquities identified by the Museum on behalf of law enforcement, the art trade or private individuals can be exhibited, published and repatriated to their countries of origin. I have directed excavations in Iraq and Turkmenistan, and worked on other projects in Georgia, Kuwait, Oman, the UAE, and Russia. I strongly believe that working across modern political borders helps us to better understand and appreciate cultures, ancient and modern, and that museums offer a powerful means of engaging with multiple audiences and stakeholders, inclusive of academic, popular, governmental, old and young. Archaeology and fieldwork also enable us to re-interpret old collections, and that is an essential part of museum research and curation. ORCID ID: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-9884-7637

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