Dr. Pat’s Ancient Ales

June 27, 2011

Midas TouchWhen I first started working at the Penn Museum (back in 2006 CE), I inherited an office that had probably been used as a supply closet at one time or another. The shelves came stocked with publications about Mayan hieroglyphs, Etruscan armor, and a whole mess of those off-putting, 1-color pubs from the 80s. Among the inventory of trinkets including a grinning, golden Buddha statue was a large bottle of Midas Touch. I had no idea what it was at the time, but now I’m amazed that bottle of precious brew escaped the hands of thirsty purloiners as long as it did.

Midas Touch is a “phrygian grog” made by Dogfish Head, now one of my favorite microbreweries — if you watch Beer Wars, you will barely manage to snort at corpo-brews like Budweiser again. Dr. Pat McGovern, our resident Biomolecular Archaeologist, partnered with Dogfish Head to recreate the mead served at the funerary feast of King Midas in 700 BCE. Another product of their many collaborations is Chateau Jiahu, a 9,000 year-old recipe lifted from pot sherds excavated from the early Neolithic site of Jiahu in China’s Yellow River valley.

The August 2011 Smithsonian Magazine has a great article summarizing Dr. Pat’s work with extreme beverages and his quest to find the origins of imbibing.

“I don’t know if fermented beverages explain everything, but they help explain a lot about how cultures have developed…”
Dr. Pat McGovern

The techniques Dr. Pat uses to crack the codes to these ancient recipes vary depending on the chemical evidence he seeks. And he doesn’t simply put a pot sherd (not “shard,” mind you) under a microscope to find grape particles.

“Pottery is virtually indestructible, and liquids are absorbed into the pores of the pottery. As a result, ancient organics are preserved for 1000’s of years until we come along to extract and analyze them.”
Dr. Pat McGovern

A representative sampling of the ca. 700 wine jars from the Scorpion tomb. (Photograph courtesy of German Institute of Archaeology, Cairo.)

Alcohol, of course, evaporates long before the sherds are excavated. Rather, he looks for “fingerprint compounds” in the form of resins and chemicals that indicate the existence of wine, honey, rice, barley, etc. In the article, he mentions several techniques like infrared spectrometry, liquid chromatography, and the Feigl spot test. So I guess all those inscrutable gizmos in his lab aren’t just high tech kegs.

Dr. Pat working his magic in the lab