Skip to main content.
Closed Mondays

Biomolecular Archaeology

Curatorial Section

Near East

Research Discipline

Biological Anthropology

Expand Global Research

Over more than a century, we’ve opened up endless exploration across six continents. New field work endowments will ensure our continued leadership in national and international field research and discovery.

Give Now

Biomolecular Archaeology, the scientific analysis of ancient organic remains, has come of age in the past twenty-five years. Ancient foods, perfumes, dyes, and other organics, which could only be imagined from ancient writings, can now be detected and characterized by applying highly sensitive chemical techniques.

Location Information

Research areas span the world, with special concentration onthe Near East, China, the Mediterranean, Europe, and the Americas.

Time Period Studied

All periods, with special concentration on the Neolithic Period (following the end of the last Ice Age around 10,000 BCE in many parts of the world), and the Bronze and Iron Ages.

  • Patrick E. McGovern, Ph.D., Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health
Project Overview

This supremely interdisciplinary field promises to open up whole new chapters relating to our bio-cultural transformation over the past three million years, including our ancestry and genetic development, our cuisines and fermented beverages, and medical practice and other crafts. We are at the beginning of a process that will transform our understanding of our species and yield spectacular discoveries in the 21st century.

Penn Museum's Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health has been at the forefront of these developments. Beginning with the chemical identification of the earliest Royal Purple, the famous dye of the Phoenicians, the laboratory has gone on to develop techniques for identifying fermented beverages, including the earliest grape wine, the earliest barley beer, and “grogs” or “extreme beverages” made of wine, beer, and honey mead. Examples of the latter beverage have now been identified chemically in ancient drinking vessels recovered from the “Midas Tumulus” at the 8th century BCE capital of the Phrygians in central Turkey, and from sites along the Yellow River of China dating as early as 7000 BCE.

Our program is playing a crucial role in advancing Biomolecular Archaeology in the United States and around the world. The discoveries that we have already made are a direct result of taking new chemical data and integrating them with findings from many other disciplines--archaeology, geology and genetics, ethnography and ethnohistory, etc. For example, this combined approach is being used to clarify when and where the Eurasian grape (Vitis vinifera)—the source of 99% of modern wine—was domesticated; and how a Near Eastern “wine culture” emerged around 6000 BCE and spread around the world in subsequent millennia.

A ground-breaking study on “Ancient Egyptian Herbal Wines,” which appeared in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (May 5, 2009, vol. 106, no. 18, pp. 7361-7366) [link needed], illustrates the success of this research model. Our laboratory had already determined that one of the first kings of Egypt, Scorpion I (circa 3150 BCE), had taken 700 jars, some 4500 liters, of resinated wine to his tomb in Abydos. But there was more—Instrumental Neutron Activation Analysis of the jar pottery wares showed that they, and presumably the wine that they contained, had not been made in Egypt. They had been imported from the Jordan Valley and environs, and transported some 700 kilometers, probably overland by donkey and then by ship to Abydos. We then carried out DNA analysis on the jar residues and showed that the wine had been fermented with a precursor of the "wine yeast," Saccharomyces cerevisiae. As pharaohs such as Scorpion I adopted the Near Eastern wine culture, they began to see the importance of establishing a native winemaking industry; beginning around 3000 BCE, the its foundations were laid in the Nile Delta by transplanting the domesticated vine from the southern Levant. The jar residues had more to reveal in our latest study: by using ever more sensitive instrumentation (e.g., liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry and solid phase microextraction gas chromatography-mass spectrometry), our laboratory and collaborators discovered that the wine in Scorpion I’s tomb was truly an elixir for the afterlife. Besides terebinth and pine tree resins, fresh whole grapes and figs, the fermented beverage was laced with herbs, probably including mint, coriander, and sage. It turns out that the alcohol in a fermented beverage is an ideal way to dissolve medicinally active compounds from herbs and other plants, thereby laying the foundations for the later Egyptian pharmacopeia, which was renowned in the ancient world.

Our investigation of early Chinese fermented beverages indicates that a "rice wine culture" was established there in the early Neolithic period (circa 7000–6000 BCE) and had equally far-reaching consequences, including the development of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Such innovative, interdisciplinary research is part of an ongoing , broader effort--geographically and chronologically--to “re-excavate” ancient medicinal remedies that were lost throughout the millennia of human history and might be applied in 21st century health and medicine. A new project has thus been initiated: “Archaeological Oncology: of “Digging for Drug Discovery.” In collaboration with Penn’s Department of Medicine and the Abramson Cancer, the additives to the ancient fermented beverages, including those in the Scorpion I grape wine and the Jiahu Neolithic grog, are being tested for their anti-cancer and other medicinal effects.

To find out more about how fermented beverages were made (and enjoyed) by our ancestors, Patrick McGovern and collaborators have also applied experimental archaeology to bring some of these beverages back to life, as it were.

Visit Dr. Pat McGovern's website

Additional Sponsors
Over the past 25 years, the Biomolecular Laboratory has collaborated with scholars, museums, departments of antiquities, and other institutions in more than 30 countries around the world. Among others, our work has been supported by:
  • American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts (COPIA)
  • American Philosophical Society
  • American Research Institute in Turkey Annenberg Foundation
  • Cornell and Harvard Universities
  • Dogfish Head Brewery
  • The DuPont Co.
  • Dupont Merck Pharmaceutical Co.
  • European Union
  • Fulbright Foundation
  • Henry Luce Foundation
  • Italian National Research Council
  • Jerome Levy Fund
  • Kaplan Fund
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • National Science Foundation
  • National Endowment for the Humanities
  • National Geographic Society
  • The Robert Mondavi Winery
  • Rohm and Haas Co.
  • Thermo Nicolet Corp.
  • The Wine Institute

Recent research support and collaborations include:

Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages

by Dr. Patrick E. Mcgovern (University of California Press)

In a lively tour around the world and through the millennia, Uncorking the Past tells the compelling story of humanity's ingenious, intoxicating quest for the perfect drink. Following a tantalizing trail of archaeological, chemical, artistic, and textual clues, Patrick E. McGovern, the leading authority on ancient alcoholic beverages, brings us up to date on what we now know about how humans created and enjoyed fermented beverages across cultures.

Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture

by Dr. Patrick E. McGovern (Princeton University Press)

This book is the first comprehensive and up-to-date account of the earliest stages of vinicultural history and prehistory, which extends back into the Neolithic period and beyond. Elegantly written and richly illustrated, Ancient Wine opens up whole new chapters in the fascinating story of wine and the vine by drawing upon recent archaeological discoveries, molecular and DNA sleuthing, and the texts and art of long-forgotten peoples.

The Origins and Ancient History of Wine

The study of the origin, development and diversity of the human diet is emerging as a coherent field that offers a much-needed integrative framework for our contemporary knowledge of the ecology of food and nutrition. This authoritative series of monographs and symposia volumes on the history and anthropology of food and nutrition is designed to address this need by providing integrative approaches to the study of various problems within the human food chain. Since the series is both methodologically and conceptually integrative, the focus of the individual volumes spans such topics as nutrition and health, culinary practices, prehistoric analyses of diet, and food scarcity and subsistence practices among various societies of the world.

The Organic Contents of Ancient Vessels

Materials Analysis and Archaeological Investigation
William R. Biers and Patrick E. McGovern, Editors
The papers in this volume clearly demonstrate the importance of investigating organic residues to elucidate crucial aspects of ancient life such as agriculture, trade, ritual practice. Much of the information presented here could only have been derived using scientific techniques of analysis.

Related Websites

Funerary Feast of King Midas
This website recreates the funerary feast of King Midas according to the archaeological excavation of the Midas Mound in Yassihöyük Turkey.

Origins and History of Ancient Wines
This website introduces you to ancient wine-making practices in the neolithic period, in ancient Egypt, and mesopotamia.

Expedition Magazine

Expedition Volume 42, Number 1 Spring 2000
The Funerary Banquet of "King Midas" by 
Patrick E. McGovern

Expedition Volume 39, Number 1 Spring 1997K
The Beginnings of Winemaking and Viniculture in the Ancient Near East and Egypt by 
Patrick E. McGovern, Ulrich Hartung, Virginia R. Badler, Donald L. Glusker, and Lawrence J. Exner

Press Releases

May 2009 - 5,100 Year Old Chemical Evidence For Ancient Medicinal Remedies Discovered in Ancient Egyptian Wine Jars

January 2005 - 9,000 Year History of Chinese Fermented Beverages Confirmed By Penn Museum Archaeochemist and an International Team of Scholars

People Associations

Research Access to the Collections

The Penn Museum welcomes and encourages researchers to make use of its collections, including objects from all over the world, as well as extensive photographic, film, and document archives.

Find Out How