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Who Invented the Cup? The Indiana Jones of Drinks Knows

Pat McGovern with an Iron Age juglet in Jordan, 1980 / Photo by Nicholas Hartmann

For fans of wine, science and the Indiana Jones series, the job title “molecular archaeologist of fermented beverages” sounds like a lottery-winning career. But how does one enter this fascinating field?

Wine Enthusiast turned to the preeminent scholar for dating ancient fermentation materials and vessels, Dr. Patrick McGovern. The scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project and adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania Museum has authored numerous papers and books on his discoveries, including Uncorking the Past (2009) Ancient Wine (2003)

Here, he shares why it’s so important to study the past.

When did you first discover an interest in alcoholic beverages and wine?

While traveling around Germany during college, my wife and I needed money. We went to the Mosel Valley, known for Riesling of course, and went from village to village. We stopped at the mayors’ houses in each, and because I knew German, we inquired if any vintner had work in their vineyards. Back then, there was no email, just a dead letter box in Munich, which was where we were headed.

When we got to Munich, a letter was waiting, inviting us to spend a month picking grapes at a small winery. We went back and on our first night, the winemaker opened 12 bottles from different vintages. The year we were there, 1971, turned out to be the vintage of the century.

What are some of the most thrilling discoveries you’ve made?

There are many. I used to lead excavations in Jordan, where we found some amazing Iron Age burials. You can’t believe how exciting that was. We also discovered pottery fabrics from sites in Georgia which provide the earliest biomolecular archaeological evidence for grape wine and viniculture from the Near East. They date [back] to early sixth millennium BC[E].

What can we learn from looking to our past? For example, what does an ancient pottery shard tell us about our humanity?

We and what we surround ourselves with—our bodies, our clothes, our houses, our food and beverages—are all essentially a product of millions of years of development. We can only find out where we stand in that continuum and find a way forward by learning as much as we can about the actual processes.

An ancient pottery shard might look nondescript and meaningless, but it can hold clues to how it was made [through] pottery technology, what the vessel originally contained…insights into trade/commerce, religion, artistic expression, etc.  By even holding it in our hands, we are sharing our common humanity with our ancestors from millennia ago, essentially sharing their trials and tribulations as well their joie de vivre. 

McGovern with replica of bronze drinking bowl / Photo by Thomas Stanley for Penn Museum

What is molecular archaeology?

Molecular archaeology is the practice of identifying certain trends within cultures and societies by analyzing artifacts at the molecular level. It’s a multidisciplinary field combining humanities and natural sciences that involves integrating archaeological findings and their significance with what increasingly sensitive scientific methods can tell us.

Did you have a mentor at any stage of your career? How did they help you?

I didn’t have a single mentor; rather, I was influenced by several excellent secondary school instructors of geometry and German, college professors of organic chemistry and English literature, and colleagues, from fellow scientists to scholars, throughout my career. One man who stands out as a mentor while [I was] at Cornell: Roald Hoffmann, a Nobelist in chemistry with a combined flair for the arts and sciences. He would organize wine events at the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village.

Have you worked with any mentees?

Yes. Drs. Josh Henkin and Mike Callahan. Josh went to Penn undergrad, took my course on biomolecular archaeology, worked in our lab and has a Fulbright to Chile to work on biomolecular archaeological materials from the Atacama Desert. I started working with Mike when he was doing his graduate work at [University of California,] Santa Cruz. Subsequently, he worked at NASA on exobiological compounds using chemical techniques that are ideally suited for identifying fingerprint compounds of ancient foods and beverages. Both are co-authors on our Etruscan-southern France wine article, Beginning of Viniculture in France (2013). Mike has been involved in the Georgian wine project, Early Neolithic wine of Georgia in the South Caucasus (2017). I’ve written many letters of recommendation for them over the years.

What advice do you offer young, aspiring molecular archaeologists?

I receive at least one email request a week asking how to go about preparing for and entering this field of study. I tell them to get as thorough and as well-rounded an education and training as possible in the natural sciences and in archaeology/anthropology. They need to focus on a specific geographical area, time period, and scientific technique, but be fluent in the arts and sciences generally.

It seems there’s a growing interest in ancient winemaking and cooking. What’s your theory on why?

Wine aficionados are especially attuned to where grapevines originated, how terroir has developed geologically and historically, how humans have had essentially the same organoleptic and psychotropic responses to wine and other fermented beverages for millions of years, and how traditional techniques of viticulture and enology can produce a better natural product, the latter being much more widely appreciated in our time of artificial foods and beverages.