Everyday People

New UPenn research lights up ancient history through the eyes of common workers.

Picture it: Mesopotamia, 2,700 BCE. The earth’s cradle of civilization, where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers spill into the Persian Gulf. The walled city of Lagash hums with industry, and the marshlands around it team with fish and birds among the reeds. Farmers toil in the surrounding fields of rich, fertile soil growing staple crops like wheat and barley, and sumptuous fruits: melons, dates, and figs.

Indeed, ancient Lagash was a wealthy and powerful metropolis, and much is known about its kings, temples, and military actions. But what was it like for regular folks? Seems remiss that we know next to nothing about the many ordinary lives who literally made up this exceptional city. Until now!

Today, an exciting new picture of Lagash is coming into focus, thanks to decades of work by a global alliance of archaeologists, including researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. The team made international headlines in 2023, when their efforts at a 5,000 year old manufacturing area documented what some experts say is the world’s oldest bar! There certainly seems to be evidence of mass food consumption and beer-brewing.

Did someone say beer?! We jumped at the opportunity to sit down with the Lagash site’s project manager and landscape archaeologist, Dr. Zaid Alrawi, at Wissahickon Brewing Company (where else?!) to learn more about their last dig’s findings, including his controversial theories on what was really happening in Lagash’s “tavern.”

For Zaid, this difference of academic opinion highlights the institutional tendency to analyze archeological findings through a Western lens. Europe has had a “pub culture” for millennia, it’s natural to assume we know the ancient signs when we see them. But do we though? Let’s take a look at the evidence.

For starters, this part of the city seems to have been an industrial zone for craft specialists. The dig turned up several large oval-shaped kilns littered with ashes, slag, and pottery shards — sure signs of ceramic production. Little piles of date pits seemed to suggest on-the-job snacking, and they found other indications of worker spaces, too. Things will become much clearer as they dig all the rooms their surface mapping has revealed.

Zaid documents an ancient “zeer” on site (an early form of refrigeration)

Meanwhile the tavern in question is an open-air courtyard with low benches and tables, with a large fireplace used for cooking and shelves of crudely-made, well-used bowls. They also found what appears to be a rudimentary refrigeration system, and even fossilized food leftovers. Most intriguingly, there were tell-tale signs of beer drinking, including a recipe in cuneiform found in a nearby city! But that’s not quite enough information to declare this place an ancient gastropub.

In fact, Zaid feels pretty confident it’s more likely an on-site cafeteria for workers. As an Iraqi anthropological archaeologist who has studied other similar sites in his esteemed 20+ year career, he has some good reasons for his assessment:

  • The pollution. Lagash’s busy kilns belched out a lot of smoke all day and night, and the seating area is right nextdoor. That’s not a place you’d want to kick back and relax with some brewskies.
  • The view. More like the lack of view. Lagash was a beautiful city with many scenic marshes and waterways – why would a commercial enterprise set up shop in one of the loudest, grimiest parts of town? And why would workers want to look at their job site in their time off?
  • The brew. It’s easy to think of beer as party fuel but for much of human existence, brewing was a way to sterilize water, ensuring health and providing a cheap boost of calories and electrolytes. There’s some evidence that beer may have been a part of worker’s daily rations (all the better for bosses, when their employees are full of energy). It was the most popular drink by far at the time.
  • The kids. One of the more charming discoveries at the site were little figurines that appear to have been made by the hands of children: small horses, cows, and other domestic creatures. This dovetails with other evidence suggesting families may have lived here in special worker housing, further giving credence to the theory that the courtyard was probably a cafeteria and not a tavern.

But who knows for sure? Certainly, Zaid’s not claiming to have all the answers. When he and his team go back the next time, they’ll employ drones, magnetometers, and sophisticated soil analysis to map the ancient city’s lost canals, harbors, houses, streets, shops, and eateries.

Whatever they discover, the most important part of their work is sharing it with the people living here in the nearby town of Tell al-Hiba. Long since Lagash was abandoned to history, these families have been stewards of this important legacy, striving to safeguard it through war and strife.

“We do as much as we can to help them, and to include them in all we do,” Zaid told us, “Every visit, we provide educational materials in Arabic, so they know the great archeological treasure they watch over by virtue of living here.”

STAY TUNED! Zaid and his team look forward to engaging local audiences in person, where they’ll bring ancient history to life with new stories from the forefront of archaeology. Follow the Lagash Archaeological Project online, where you can explore the site’s unique geography, ecology and history, as well as field notes and findings from ongoing excavations.

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🙏 Big thanks to our N.I.C.E. partners at Friends, Peace and Sanctuary Journal for introducing us to this renowned Penn Museum scholar 🙏

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