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Beer and kebabs in Iron Age Orkney

As you’re all worrying about roasting your Christmas turkey, spare a thought for the Iron Age cook, slaving over a hot stone oven, like this one found at Swandro:

Iron Age oven at the Knowe of Swandro, Orkney

Ovens are more common in prehistoric Orkney than you might think. The great V. Gordon Childe found them in his excavation of the Neolithic settlement site at Rinyo, Rousay, round on the eastern side of the island from Swandro.

A very similar oven to that at Swandro came from Structure 8 in the Iron Age settlement surrounding the broch tower at Old Scatness in Shetland. Experimental reconstructions of the Scatness oven didn’t reach a very high temperature, and it was thought possible it was used for grain processing rather than straightforward cooking. It could also of course be used for something much more useful – like a malting oven for beer making.

Home brew used to be incredibly popular in Orkney, done the traditional way by steeping barley in water, draining it & letting it germinate, before drying it in a malting kiln. Old Orkney farms had a drying kiln used to dry grain after threshing, but this could easily be used for drying malted barley for brewing. This is the one at Corrigall Farm Museum: the kiln itself is a corbelled beehive shaped structure that looks a bit like a miniature broch, and at the left of the pic there’s the fireplace. The malt gets spread out on a rack in the kiln, you cover the kiln entrance & light the fire & the hot smoke rises though & dries the malt.

The drying kiln at Corrigall Farm Museum in Orkney
The drying kiln at Corrigall Farm Museum in Orkney

The beer may have been a bit rough and ready – there’s some evidence that beer in was drunk through straws to avoid all the yeasty sediment– there’s a cylinder seal from the Royal Cemetery at Ur, c.2600 – 2350 BC, which appears to show a seated couple drinking beer from a globular jar through a straw. Or maybe the men just strained it through their moustaches? Not sure what the ladies did though.

The Scatness oven also had a nice flat stone slab top that you could’ve cooked flatbreads on, so that’s the mystery solved – beer & kebabs anyone? Plenty of sheep about in the Iron Age, so no problem about getting the lamb, although the sheep were quite small so you’d probably more realistically looking at mutton: the evidence from Old Scatness pointed to sheep being kept primarily for wool. Yoghurt & cheese for the kebab dressing wouldn’t be a problem but there’d be no chilli sauce - no chilli peppers in Europe until around about the 15th century AD. Still, if you drank enough beer it wouldn’t really matter!



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