In 1897, a Russian archaeologist called Nikolai Veselovsky came across some curious, tube-like objects while excavating an enormous burial mound. Known as a kurgan from the Old Turkic, the burial site was discovered outside of Maikop, a village in the northwestern Caucasus. The mound dated to the Early Bronze Age, some 5,500 years ago — the tubes, meanwhile, were made of gold and silver, and decorated with bulls and other animal motifs. Veselovsky theorized they were a sign of high stature, scepters perhaps. But more than 100 years later, archaeologists have a rather different, delicious theory: They are extremely extra, extremely old beer straws.
What’s new — In a paper aptly titled “Party Like a Sumerian” published Wednesday in the journal Antiquity, archaeologists present a meticulous re-examination of these objects and argue they are likely more ancient beer bongs than scepters.
The problem with the old theory, these researchers note, is that the past analyses didn’t account for the tube’s complete design, such as its intricate configuration and hollow center.
“The idea of reinterpreting the ‘scepters’ first came to me about a decade ago, and I even shared it with my colleagues, but I didn’t get any support,” the paper’s first author, Viktor Trifonov wrote to Inverse. To prove his argument, Trifonov, an archaeology researcher at St. Petersburg’s Russian Academy of Sciences, knew he needed more substantial evidence.
The kurgan in which the straws were discovered comprised of a large chamber divided into three compartments, each containing the body of an adult in the fetal position. The body in the largest section was adorned with rich fabric and precious stones, as well as eight long, thin, hollow tubes. Since their discovery, they have been preserved at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.
The breakthrough came when researchers found the supposed scepter’s inner filter curiously contained barley starch residue. The clue suggested something containing barley, such as beer, may have passed through these metal tubes.
This was the turning point for Trifonov.
“I decided to check if there was any residue left from the beverage inside the Maikop tubes in the Hermitage,” he wrote to Inverse. “Everything else fell into place when my teammates found the starch, phytoliths, and pollen grains inside the filter.”
Why it matters — If these are indeed drinking straws, they represent the earliest physical evidence of drinking through long tubes, a practice which became common during feasts in the third and second millennia B.C.E. in the ancient Near East.
We know that straws have existed for millennia. The earliest depictions of people drinking through a straw are on seal impressions dating back to the fifth or fourth millennia B.C.E. The next oldest surviving straws are about 4,500 years old from the Royal Cemetery at Ur, which is current Southern Iraq. Trifonov points out a gap of about 1,000 years between these Maikop straws and the ones found in Iraq.
This detail is important when it comes to looking at funeral rituals in the region. Royal funerals resembled what Veselovsky found: A body buried with a luxurious set of items — including the straws.
In the paper, Trifonov posits the set of eight hollow tubes could represent feasting tools for eight people. In life, these people would all sit around one large vessel and guzzle beer with their straws. Skillfully forged from precious metals, the straws demonstrated one’s wealth and elite status. Aside from jewelry, the tubes were the objects placed closest to the deceased in the tomb.
Digging into the details — The complete set of straws includes eight composite gold and silver tubes, all measuring more than a meter long and 10 millimeters in diameter. The ends and centers are hollow, leaving a five-millimeter diameter tube through which a liquid could easily pass. While long, these objects are only about 200 grams (not quite half a pound) in weight.
The straws are highly decorated, and each includes what appears to be a figurine of a bull or gazelle, which itself measures 70 to 90 millimeters from the tips of the horns to the tip of the tail.
What’s next — This reinterpretation offers a far clearer picture of life in Bronze Age Sumeria. Trifonov points out how the straw’s simple yet sophisticated engineering extends even to the exquisite bull figurines, which are decorative but also act as balancing devices.
This development could also refine our understanding of Maikop funeral rites and their religious significance throughout Western Asia at the time.
“The Maikop drinking equipment provides a hint at the possible existence of similar ‘royal’ funerals in the Near East of the mid-fourth millennium [B.C.E.], which we know almost nothing about,” he writes.
The next time you unsheathe a straw from a paper sleeve, or stick your stainless-steel one into a glass, imagine how maybe you’re partying like a Sumerian, too.
Abstract: The Bronze Age Maikop kurgan is one of the most richly furnished prehistoric burial mounds in the northern Caucasus. Its excavation in 1897 yielded a set of gold and silver tubes with elaborate tips and decorative bull figurines. Interpretations of these tubes include their use as sceptres and as poles to support a canopy. Re-examination of these objects, however, suggests they were used as tubes for the communal drinking of beer, with integral filters to remove impurities. If correct, these objects represent the earliest material evidence of drinking through long tubes — a practice that became common during feasts in the third and second millennia BC in the ancient Near East.