Thanks to the hard work of archaeologists and researchers, every year brings more insight into how people ate and drank hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. Among the newest revelations: Archaeologists have identified an ancient tavern at Lagash in southern Iraq.
At its peak about 5,000 years ago, Lagash was a prosperous Sumerian city-state, one of the largest within the wider Mesopotamian region. According to Dr. Holly Pittman, director of the Lagash Archaeological Project and curator of the Near East Section at Penn Museum in Philadelphia, it was “a very large urban city with temples, palaces and several large neighborhoods. Craft production would have been an important activity.” Lagash was also home to a thriving culinary scene.
Encompassing about 1,100 acres, the Lagash site has been examined for decades, currently by a collaborative effort from the univerisities of Pennsylvania, Cambridge and Pisa along with Baghdad’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. In late 2022, led by Pittman, the Lagash Archaeological Project team found evidence of a large mudbrick “tavern” dating to 2,700 B.C. “We do not yet have the full extent of the structure, but it is certainly of several rooms,” Pittman explained via email.
The tavern is still kitted out, boasting original benches and an open-air kitchen with its original oven, as well as a zeer, a clay pot that refrigerates food through water evaporation. Archaeologists have even found evidence of storage containers, food still inside, helping us draw a clearer picture of what was on the menu: “Food is certainly marsh products including fish and probably birds, but also sheep and goat were eaten. Maybe a rare pig or two,” said Pittman.
“Then, of course, vegetables, especially onions.” The tavern was not, however, a spot for sipping wine; Lagash was beer country at that time. (And anyone who's visited historic New York cultural institution McSorley's Old Ale House can attest that beer and onions remain a magical pairing to this day.)
But who was the Lagash tavern's clientele? It looks like it was frequented not by nobles or elites, but by regular "middle class" folks. Very fittingly for the 2020s, there’s also evidence that the eatery offered outdoor dining.
While the Lagash tavern is unlikely to have been unique for its time, the installation is the first discovered from this period in the region. If you're curious about Bronze Age brewing, check out Egypt's 5,000-year-old brewery site, and for more on the tavern, look out for the Lagash archaeological team’s May 2023 lecture, “Lagash & Its Neighbors, ca. 2500 BCE.” The Penn Museum will also host a special exhibition, “Ancient Food & Flavor,” which opens June 3, alongside its continuing Ancient Alcohol series of tours and tastings.
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