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Ancient 'scepters' were actually straws for communal boozing, researchers say

The ornate tubes, four of them decorated with bull figurines, were unearthed in 1897 in a type of burial mound beside the remains of a man thought to have been a king.
An artist's conception shows men drinking beer from a communal
An artist's conception shows men drinking beer from a communal vessel.Kelvin Wilson

Silver and gold tubes unearthed in an ancient tomb in southern Russia and long thought to be ceremonial staffs were, in fact, the earliest-known drinking straws, used by people 5,000 years ago to sip beer from a communal jar, according to research published Tuesday.

The practice mirrors a ceremonial method of drinking beer used by the Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia, a thousand miles to the south from where they were found, and it suggests that trade in the early Bronze Age included ideas as well as commodities, archaeologists say. The discovery also underlines the importance of beer to ancient peoples.

The objects were discovered more than 100 years ago during excavations of a burial mound near the Russian city of Maikop, just north of the Caucasus Mountains, but no one had advanced the idea that they were ancient drinking tubes before now.

“It never occurred to anyone,” said Viktor Trifonov, an archaeologist at the Institute for the History of Material Culture of the Russian Academy of Sciences, based in St. Petersburg, who is the lead author of a study of the objects published Tuesday in the journal Antiquity.

Schematic drawing of the set of "sceptres" from the Maikop kurgan.
A schematic drawing of the set of "scepters" from the Maikop kurgan. V. Trifonov

The ornate tubes, four of them decorated with bull figurines, were unearthed in 1897 from a large “kurgan” — a type of burial mound — beside the remains of a man thought to have been a king. The kurgan was filled with riches, including what was left of a garment decorated with semiprecious stones and gold, precious metal cups, weapons and tools. The remains of two women were also found in chambers of the tomb.

The objects now revealed to be drinking tubes were found lying beside the man’s body; the other items were lined up against the walls of the burial chamber. 

The archaeologist who led the 19th century excavation described the mysterious objects as “scepters” — ceremonial staffs wielded by rulers — and they were put on display at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg with other finds from the Maikop kurgan.

Later, archaeologists theorized that they might be poles for a canopy held by servants during a funeral procession; another speculated that they might symbolize arrows that had killed a mythical bull, which was represented by the figurines.

But none of the explanations sounded right to Trifonov, who knew about the Sumerian practice of drinking beer through long tubes and had a hunch that these might have been used for the same purpose.

“The idea of reinterpreting the ‘scepters’ first came to me about a decade ago,” he said in an email. His initial suggestions, however, found no support, so he started the latest study a few years ago to see whether he could find more evidence.

His team focused its attention on what looked like a “strainer” of narrow slits in the ends of each of the tubes. Some Sumerian drinking tubes unearthed at archaeological sites had similar strainers made of small perforations at the end to filter out chaff and other impurities.

So when analysis of a residue found in the slits of one of the Maikop tubes revealed ancient barley starch, as well as pollen grains and phytoliths — microscopic deposits of silica from plant cells — Trifonov and his colleagues knew for sure that the “scepters” were, in fact, tubes for drinking beer. 

The "scetpers" from the Maikop kurgan
The "scepters" from the Maikop kurgan are perforated at one end by slits to serve as strainers, and the tubes have jointed segments. It's thought that long seams along each of the tubes were sealed by soldering them. V. Trifonov

“Everything else fell into place,” he said.

Trifonov and his team suggest that the Maikop people who built the kurgan used the tubes to drink beer from a communal vessel. A pottery jar was also found in the kurgan, large enough to provide each of eight drinkers — there are eight tubes — with about seven pints of beer.

Trifonov said it seems likely that this way of drinking beer was part of aristocratic ceremonies the Maikop people had adopted from Mesopotamia. Although the Maikop tubes are the earliest to have been found, the practice is shown on Sumerian seals that are at least 1,000 years older.

Archaeologist Mara Horowitz, an assistant professor at Purchase College in New York who was not involved in the latest study, broadly agreed with the interpretation by Trifonov and his colleagues. 

“Having a whole set of metal straws placed in the Maikop kurgan is an extraordinary find,” she said.

The discovery shows how such practices could spread between ancient people who were great distances apart, she said.

“It’s very exciting to see the degree of connectivity across the Caucasus at this early date,” she said. “It is in the 3rd millennium B.C. that we have movements of culture and people across the Caucusus in both directions, with major effect on regional cultures.”

Horowitz also said the bull figurines on four of the drinking tubes could have been positioned so that the drinkers saw each figurine from the side. 

“With four bulls on straws in the jar at once ... it would look like a procession of little bulls going around in a circle,” she said. “That’s really kind of adorable.”