Denis Lacambre, the beer-office at Chagar Bazar (2008).
The article by Denis Lacambre presented below is a digest published in 2009 of his complete study of the cuneiform tablets unearthed at the site of Chagar Bazar (Syria) between 2000 and 2002.
The archaeological site of Chagar Bazar stands for the ancient Ašnakkum, one of the cities of the kingdom of Upper Mesopotamia established in northern Syria by Samsī-Addu between 1792 and 1775 BC.
The tablets are mainly administrative texts relating to the management of grain and beer. They were found by batches in buildings where discarded clay tablets were piled up. They were all written between 1779 and 1776 BC. These tablets record the grain used to brew beer in four separate circumstances :
- The grains for brewing beer consumed by Sîn-iqišam and his relatives. He is the trusted man of Samsī-Addu, a high-ranking personage who resides in the palace of the upper city. The beer is intended for the cellar (kannum) of this palace. The amounts of grain for brewing good quality beer are very large.
- The grains for brewing beer drunk by the harem of the same Sîn-iqišam. This harem gathers about 40 women of very different social status.
- Beer allocated to messengers, ambassadors and various officials received at the palace or dispatched by it.
- Grain for brewing beer granted as rations to the envoys of the ruler Samsī-Addu who came to the city in 1777 to supervise the building of a memorial.
These archives offer a thematic coherence (grains for brewing beer), a chronological accuracy (3 consecutive years) and an economic unity (administration of Ašnakkum's palace) which justify the expression "Beer Office" used by Denis Lacambre.
The icing on the cake is that the tablets are written following the same form: date - volume of grain or beer - volume and quality of beer - recipient(s) - circumstance (optional). This formatting allows for a systematic comparison of grain and beer volumes. Denis Lacambre was able to infer 3 regular ratios between these two values. These 3 ratios match 3 different qualities of beer named by the documents:
|Range of beer||Grain for 1 qa* of beer||Translation||vol. beer / vol. grains||For 100 l of grains|
|kaš ša ZUmišu||1½ qa of grain||High quality beer||0,66||66 l of beer|
|kaš sig5||1 qa of grain||Strong beer**||1||100 l of beer|
|kaš ús||½ qa of grain||Regular beer||2||200 l of beer|
* unit of volume: either 0.8 litre (Šamaš measure) or 1.2 litre (kinatê measure). This duality does not affect the ratios, the texts always give the volumes of grain and beer with the same measure.
A 4th kind of beer is given by the tablets. Its quality is lower than kaš ús beer, but its ratio cannot be calculated with the documents. Denis Lacambre suggested the value ¼ on the basis of the 2 available tablets.
|Range of beer||Grain for 1 qa* of beer||Translation||vol. beer / vol. grains||For 100 l of grains|
|kaš gurnu||¼ qa of grain||Small beer||4||400 l of beer|
The value of these ratios shows an astonishing regularity whatever the volumes of grain or beer to be brewed and their recipients. These ratios are known to everyone, a sort of public scale. They concern the social groups that depend directly on political power for their food. The Chagar Bazar tablets offer an overview of the social categories or trades concerned by the beer rations or by the beer allocations granted to the powerful figures of the Upper Mesopotamian kingdom.
The randomness of the excavations does not give an exhaustive picture of Mesopotamian society. However, it does allow us to verify two points: 1) the beer quality is proportional to the social rank. This quality, that is in fine the quantity of grain consumed to brew it, serves as an index of the social rank of the recipients. Conversely, the social rank of a beneficiary can be deduced from the quality of the beer she or he gets 2) this mapping of beer, the main fermented beverage of the time, is equally applicable to all those living in the orbit of the palace, from the master of Chagar Bazar to the simple craftsman.
Examples of kinds of beer / socail ranks at Chagar Bazar.
|Range of beer||Beneficiairies||Circumstances||qa* / day|
|kaš ša ZUmišu||Yasmah-Addu, son of Samsī-Addu||Coming at Chagar Bazar||50-100|
|Sîn-iqišam||Banquet on the occasion of a census||20-75 (qa Šamaš of 0,8 l)|
|kaš sig5||Cellar of Sîn-iqišam's palace||Beer for the master of Chagar Bazar's receptions||70-90 qa à 400 qa|
|First spouse||Daily beverage||10|
|Second spouse||Daily beverage||5 à 1|
|Great women musicians||Daily beverage||1|
|Sîn-iqišam's family||Daily beverage||1|
|High officers||Daily beverage||10|
|Prud’homme (ebbum)||Daily beverage||10|
|Others officers||Daily beverage||5|
|King's servant||Daily beverage||6|
|Military leaders||Daily beverage||20|
|Heads of a soldiers squad||Daily beverage||5|
|Administrative Heads||Daily beverage||5|
|Palace guards||Daily beverage||5|
|kaš ús||Palace: servants||Daily beverage||1|
|* qa of grain, given by default with the kinatê measure (1.2 l). With 1 qa kinatê, one brews 2.4 litres of regular beer.|
* * * * *
The respect of these brewing ratios by the brewers must have raised some technical problems.
Only when brewing by simple infusion is it possible to extract a volume of wort that is 1½ times smaller than the volume of grains (the extreme example of kaš ša ZUmišu beer). This method of brewing involves soaking the crushed grains in hot water for about 1 hour without stirring them. This involves pouring in 3 to 4 times the volume of hot water, with the grains retaining most of it. Once the sugars have dissolved in the water, the residual grains and the liquid part, the wort, are separated by filtration. This last technical operation decides the correct ratio as established by the Chagar Bazar accounts. This is the ratio that must be respected by those who make the beer. The brewhouse(s) is (are) not part of the Beer Office, which is the administrative body responsible for controlling the allocation of the grain.
The brewing ratios set by the beer office now make it possible to estimate the density of the wort before fermentation. These estimated calculations show some interesting results. The grain/wort ratio for kaš ša ZUmišu and kaš sig5 beers involves the infusion method briefly described above. In contrast, the grain/wort ratio for kaš ús beer implies a very liquid phase infusion with the possibility of stirring the mixture or even heating it by direct fire or an indirect source (hot stones). This is even more true for gurnu beer.
The resulting wort for the kaš ša ZUmišu beer will be close to syrup with a relative sugar density of about 1.15. This initial density is typical for very strong beers according to current standards (Initial Density/Original Gravity > 1.084). The estimated wort density for kaš sig5 beer also falls into the strong beer category (OG 1.10).
The regular beer kaš ús, on the other hand, would nowadays be a table beer (OG 1.012). Gurnu beer is even lighter, close to a non-alcoholic beer (OG 1.025).
The Chagar Bazar tablets mention 2 qualities of beer wort (kaš ú-sa = billatum): kaš ú-sa = standard quality wort and kaš ú-sa ús = regular wort (to be compared to kaš ús). This confirms on the one hand the method of brewing by infusion of a more or less liquid and more or less sugar-dense mash according to the initial grain ratio, especially for kaš ú-sa and gurnu beers, the least dense of the four; and on the other hand, it is indeed the more or less dense (sweet) wort that matters for the recipients of beer rations, before any alcoholic fermentation. Receiving wort of such and such a density or finished beer of the same density was equivalent. The only thing that mattered was the initial proportion of grain that respected the recipient's social status.
The social mapping of beer highlighted by Denis Lacambre for Chagar Bazar also exists in Šubat-Enlil (Tell-Leilan site), capital of the kingdom, and in other cities of Upper Mesopotamia at the same time such as Qaṭṭarā (Tell Rimah), Tuttul (Tell Bi'a) (Beer management in the Paleo-Babylonian kingdoms).
* * * * *
Did all Mesopotamian societies practice this social mapping of beer, and if so, since when? This question must be asked. The beer accounts record daily micro-events whose scope does not exceed a few hundred people living in a palace. Was the brewing of standardised beers on a scale of 3 or 4 different grades a common practice throughout Mesopotamia?
Variants or embryonic stages of this social logic are attested in the 3rd millennium in the city-states that made up the core of Mesopotamia. The most impressive clues are found in the archives of :
• Ebla, Mari and Nabada (Tell Beydar) in Syria during the 26th and 25th centuries BC.
• Lagaš around 2350 BC : the brewery in the heart of a city-state.
• The province of Umma ( Southern Mesopotamia) during the Sargonic period (2334-2193 BC).
• The same province of Umma (Southern Mesopotamia) during the third Ur dynasty (2112-2004 BC).
• The small settlements management of Gu'abba (Southern Mesopotamia) under the 3rd Ur dynasty (2112-2004 BC).
• The multiple batches of tablets that document the various qualities of beer allocated to messengers, envoys or emissaries, a practice that covers the whole of the second half of the third millennium until the beginning of the second millennium.
What differs from one period to another (between 3100 and 1700 B.C.), from one city to another, are first of all the ratios and their scales.
In the province of Umma (southern Mesopotamia, ≈30 km N-E of Uruk) during the Sargonic period (2334-2193 BC), 7 different ratios are implemented. This is a borderline example. The most common scales have 3 to 4 brewing ratios as shown at Chagar Bazar.
The kind of the ingredients used to calculate the ratios and to brew the beer also changes. Two brewing ingredients, the bappir-bread and ninda-bread, sometimes the titab-bread, can be counted instead of raw grains, to achieve the same result: to evaluate a social rank with the "grains" standard. This did not raise any issues for the Mesopotamian scribes, who knew how to convert them all into volumes of grain. This accounting technique was already in the making at the end of the 4th millennium (see The first beer brewing accounts in Elam, Sumer and Akkad).
Finally, the mapping of brewing ratios encompasses a more or less large population and more or less extensive social groups. Its implementation is nevertheless always driven by the authority that controls the granaries and monitors the conversion of grain into beer and bread, the ultimate sources of political power.
Entire parts of Mesopotamian societies are not concerned by this system, which radiates from a palace or a strong political institution and encompasses only those human groups directly depending on it. Slaves do not enter into this logic and do not benefit from beer rations, except when they are enslaved in forced labour workshops to grind grain, weave wool or work clay. This enslaved population makes up the productive core of the Mesopotamian societies.
Similarly, semi-sedentary pastoralists are far from the cities and their palaces. Their material existence is not based on cereals. Their communities do not adopt the strongly hierarchical structures of the sedentary ones. Sedentary and pastoralist-breeders nevertheless maintain economic synergies, in particular exchanges of cereal products for products from their livestock (milk and cheese, hides and skins, meat, products from gathering and hunting, honey, etc). These regular interactions mean that they have to drink together. Beer has a central place, alongside the fermented drinks favoured by the semi-nomads, mead and fermented milk. The tablets of Chagar Bazar provide an example. Gathering of 2770 soldiers = 2770 qa (2216 litres) of barley flour, 1385 qa (1108 litres) of grain for regular beer (OBTCB 19). The tablet does not mention the products brought by these 'elamite' or 'Hanean' soldiers. These items cannot be recorded by palatial accounts that archaeologists discover in tells, ancient urban sites.
The palace of Chagar Bazar thus inherits an ancient Mesopotamian tradition that spread from the Persian Gulf to northern Syria.
This Mesopotamian social beer-ratio system is not unique. Various cultures of antiquity implemented equivalent systems as soon as the conditions were met: a cereal cultivation as a food base, a centralising power, an intricate and fleshedout social hierarchy. This is the case in ancient Egypt, India, China, or in the pre-Columbian centralised kingdoms. From this perspective, the classical Greek culture where political and warrior elites drink wine rather than beer is an exception, not the rule.
 In addition, nine tablets published by Philippe Talon in Old Babylonian Texts from Chagar Bazar (= OBTCB), Akkadica Supplementum X, 1997, are among those discovered by Mallowan in the 1930s during excavations at the Chagar Bazar site. New tablets were discovered during the 2008 excavations.
 OBTCB 28 « 1240 qa of gurnu-beer, measure of Šamaš. Meal of Yasmah-Addu » et OBTCB 46 « 800 qa of gurnu-beer, measure of Šamaš. Meal of Yasmah-Addu ». The ratio ¼ gives an integer value, 310 qa and 200 qa of grain for brewing respectively. A 1/3 ratio would give decimal values inconsistent with the customs documented by all known records.
 Formulas explained here brassageamateur.com/wiki/Formules#Densit..... Our ignorance of the fermentation techniques used by Mesopotamian brewers makes any attempt to assess the degree of alcohol futile. We know neither the duration of fermentation, nor the yeasts, nor the temperatures, nor the possible sugar additions.
 Benjamin R. Foster, Umma in the Sargonic Period. Memoirs of the Connecticut Acadamy of Arts & Sciences, Volume XX, 1982. Notamment pp. 14-18 et 110-115.
 OBTCB 19 is one of the tablets that verify the ratio for the regular beer: twice as much grain delivered for bread as for beer, for the same number of people, 2770 soldiers. The grain:beer volume ratio of kaš ús beer = 1:2. The precise equivalence between the two volumes, that of the grains for the beer and that of the beer to be brewed, is given by other tablets.