Straws

January 19, 2022

This morning I came across a news article from CNN posted yesterday relating to the revisioning of eight artifacts found at the Maikop kurgan, a prehistoric burial mound in the northern Caucasus in Russia.  The mound was excavated in the summer of 1897 by archaeologist Nikolai Veselovsky, a professor at St. Petersburg University.  Veselovsky found graves of three people within the mound belonging to elite members of Bronze Age society.  Along with hundreds of special artifacts, Veselovsky discovered a set of eight gold and silver tubes at the right hand of the skeleton.  Veselovsky assumed they were decorative scepters and that the perforations at the tip of each tube were used to attach ornaments or horsehair.  New evidence suggests the mysterious scepters could be giant drinking straws used to consume mass quantities of beer.

Over the last century, researchers have debated the purpose of the tubes.  One suggested the tubes were part of the structure for a folding canopy used during the funeral procession for the person in the burial.  Another thought they may be symbolic rods representing arrow shafts, given that arrowheads were recovered from the mound.  Viktor Trifonov, an archaeologist from the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute for the History of Material Culture, poked holes in the previous theories because those objects would have required solid metal pieces rather than hollow tubes.  “A turning point was the discovery of the barley starch granules in the residue from the inner surface of one of the straws.  This provided direct material evidence of the tubes from the Maikop kurgan being used for drinking.”

Each of the 5,000-year-old Maikop straws measure about 3.6 feet (1.1 meters) long, and researchers believe they were used to drink beer from communal vessels.  Four of the straws were decorated with bull figurines, and all eight include punctured metal pieces to filter out impurities in the beer.  The oldest evidence of straws being used to drink beer is depicted in art from Iran and Iraq dated to the fifth and fourth millenniums BCE, showing people using straws to drink from a communal vessel.  Using long straws to drink beer together was common for the later Sumerians from the third millennium BCE.  The Maikop straws looked remarkably similar when compared with the Sumerian depictions of straws, including the metal strainers.  The grave also contained one of the beer vessels used with the straws that was so large it would have enabled each of the eight drinkers to down seven pints a beer each.  Obviously, evidence of a Maikop keg party.

Thoughts:  One of my Old-World Archaeology professors specialized in Mesopotamia’s Sumerian period until the Iranian Revolution in 1979 closed the country to foreign archaeologists.  He told a story of the archeologists finding a recipe for beer among the cuneiform tablets.  Being the wags they were, they followed the recipe and fermented their own beer.  The result was not very good, and the unfiltered mash made it difficult to drink.  That must be why they drank using straws.  The Maikop straws came from a site that is hundreds of miles away from where straws were used in Mesopotamia, suggesting the use of straws spread between regions.  Globalization is not as new as we have been led to believe, it just used to take longer to spread.  We are all the same human species.  Do the work.  Follow the science.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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