Ancient Celts Drank Local Beer and Imported Wine from the Mediterranean, Archaeologists Find

Direct evidence for what people ate and drank in ancient times has traditionally been hard to come by. But now, new technology is enabling scientists to cast light on the consumption habits of people who lived in the distant past.

With the help of advanced techniques, an international team has turned their attention to the Celts—a widespread group of ancient peoples who first emerged in central Europe around 3,000 years ago—providing fascinating new insights into the beverages that they drank.

For a study published in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich and the University of Tübingen, both in Germany, investigated nearly 100 objects recovered from a fortified "princely" settlement at Mont Lassois in Burgundy, France, which was built during the Early Celtic Period. Among the objects excavated by archaeologists were pottery and drinking vessels which had been imported from Greece around 500 B.C.

"Our study focuses on the Early Celtic Period, dating from the 6th to the beginning of the 5th century B.C.," Cynthianne Spiteri, an author of the paper from Tübingen, told Newsweek. "At this time, the the Celts were present in the area between the Czech Republic to Eastern France, and from Southern Germany to Northern Switzerland.

"The term 'Celts' is probably not how these people identified themselves," she said. "This term was coined by the Classical writers. However, they shared similar cultural and funerary practices, and at this time, they also begin to establish what we term 'princely' sites, which were also fortified."

In this period, large numbers of drinking vessels from Greece and Italy were imported into the more northerly regions of Europe where the Celts were present. As a result, many experts have argued that the Celts began to imitate their Mediterranean neighbors by drinking wine from these areas during rituals and festive occasions, however, there has been a lack of direct evidence for this. It has also long been assumed that drinking wine at these occasions was restricted to the Celtic elite.

To test some of these assumptions, the researchers analyzed the residues found in vessels excavated from the Mont Lassois site, which yielded the chemical signatures of various foods and beverages.

"This methodology provides direct evidence based on the analysis of lipids—[a diverse group of organic compounds]—that become absorbed in the ceramic during their use life," Spiteri said. "The main instruments used are Gas Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry. We applied this technique to a selection of Mediterranean imports and local vessels, targeting mainly drinking vessels and serving/storage vessels associated with drinking practices."

The analysis revealed the signatures of various products, including wine, beer, olive oil, milk, beeswax, and millet—a type of cereal crop. According to the researchers the findings indicate that wine from the Mediterranean was being consumed, alongside other locally produced beer beverages, during festive and ritual occasions.

"Our analyses confirm that they indeed consumed imported wines, but they also drank local beer from the Greek drinking bowls," Philipp Stockhammer, lead author of the study from LMU, said in a statement. "In other words, the Celts did not simply adopt foreign traditions in their original form. Instead, they used the imported vessels and products in their own ways and for their own purposes."

"Moreover, the consumption of imported wine was apparently not confined to the upper echelons of society. Craftsmen too had access to wine, and the evidence suggests that they possibly used it for cooking, while the elites quaffed it in the course of their drinking parties."

Spiteri said that the new research finally provides some answers to a question which has long puzzled researchers in this field.

"We are delighted to have definitively solved the old problem of whether or not the early Celts north of the Alps adopted Mediterranean drinking customs," she said in the statement. "They did indeed, but they did so in a creative fashion!"

greek drinking vessel
Greek drinking cup from the Early Celtic princely burial mound Kleinaspergle. This vessel is similar to those whose pottery fragments were found in the Celtic settlement at Mont Lassois. P. Frankenstein / H. Zwietasch/Württemberg State Museum