The mission of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago is the study of vanished civilizations and dead languages. Its scholars generally consign to science fiction the notion of bringing the past back to life.
But now some of those scholars are engaged in a project something like that: re-creating Sumerian beer.
Some might see it as a quixotic venture: trying to make a potable brew according to a list of ingredients inscribed on a clay tablet 4,000 years ago. Chicagoans will be able to judge the results for themselves. The university will host an ancient beer tasting in August.
This isn't the first time contemporaries have tried to make Sumerian beer, noted Tate Paulette, a University of Chicago graduate student, and point man on the project. But previous attempts have used modern equipment, the shiny kettles and pipes to be seen in the microbreweries of hip, urban neighborhoods.
The Sumerians knew how to work metal, but they had to reserve the product of their furnaces and forges for weapons to use against marauding nomads. So at the urging of Pat Conway, a Cleveland brewer and their partner in the project, scholars created clay vessels like those presumably used by Sumerian beer-makers.
Using the university's clay vessels, Great Lakes Brewing Co. has produced several facsimiles of Sumerian beer, tweaking the recipe according to the professors' theories about the ancient brewmasters' craft. Conway will come to Chicago to brew the final version for the August tasting.
"I was fascinated that people were brewing beer for thousands of years before they were writing," Conway said. "The Sumerians were amazing. They gave us law, mathematics, cities, empires."
Indeed, the Sumerians, who lived in what is now Iraq, used those innovations to lift human society to the level of a civilization for the first time, according to one school of thought. The Sumerians were one of the first peoples to realize they could preserve their thoughts by setting them down in writing. Their version of writing, known as cuneiform and inscribed on clay tablets, has enabled modern scholars to understand how the Sumerians felt about ethics, education, religion and beer.
"Beer is mentioned repeatedly in the tablets," Paulette said. "They tell us that it was brewed in palaces and temples. Ordinary people made small batches, sort of a home brew."
Sumerian is the name of a language; the people who spoke it are unknown to us. Unanswered too is the question of where they came from and where they went. They appear on prehistory's stage around the fifth millennium B.C. and disappear a few millenniums later.
It's not clear what they were up to when they first harvested cereal crops. By the time of written records, Sumerians were using a form of bread in their fermentation process. Did they brew beer and then realize that a bread-like substance could be eaten, or vice versa?
"It's called the 'bread-versus-beer controversy,' " a variation on the egg-and-chicken puzzle, Paulette said.
"I think the beer came first, but then I'm a brewer," Conway said. "The artisanal baker helping us with the Sumerian beer project is just as convinced that bread was first."