Experts working on Highways England’s £1.5 billion upgrade of the A14 from Huntingdon to Cambridge have uncovered what is believed to be evidence of the first beer brewed in the UK.

MOLA Headland  archaebotanist, Lara Gonzalez believes this is the earliest evidence of British beer brewing.
MOLA Headland archaebotanist, Lara Gonzalez believes this is the earliest evidence of British beer brewing.

Signs of an Iron Age brewery, dating potentially from as far back as 400 BC, were uncovered in tiny fragments of charred residues from the beer-making process from earth excavated with other archaeological finds.

Further finds showed that people also had a taste for porridge and bread as well as beer.

The discoveries are the latest on the road project where previous finds include woolly mammoths, abandoned villages, and burials.

Dr Steve Sherlock, Highways England archaeology lead for the A14, said: “The work we are doing on the A14 continues to unearth incredible discoveries that are helping to shape our understanding of how life in Cambridgeshire, and beyond, has developed through history.

“It’s a well-known fact that ancient populations used the beer making process to purify water and create a safe source of hydration, but this is potentially the earliest physical evidence of that process taking place in the UK.

“This is all part of the work we are doing to respect the areas cultural heritage while we deliver our vital upgrade for the A14.”

A team of up to 250 archaeologists led by experts from MOLA Headland Infrastructure has been working on the project, investigating 33 sites across 360 hectares.

MOLA Headland botanist, Lara Gonzalez came across the latest fascinating evidence.

Lara said: “I knew when I looked at these tiny fragments under the microscope that I had something special. The microstructure of these remains had clearly changed through the fermentation process and air bubbles typical of those formed in the boiling and mashing process of brewing.

“It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack but as an archaeobotanist it’s incredibly exciting to identify remains of this significance and to play a part in uncovering the fascinating history of the Cambridgeshire landscape. “The porous structures of these fragments are quite similar to bread, but through microscopic study, it’s possible to see that this residue is from the beer-making process as it shows evidence of fermentation and contains larger pieces of cracked grains and bran but no fine flour. Further analysis into the fermentation process involved in brewing will hopefully tell us more.”

Finds so far have included 40 pottery kilns, 342 burials, a Roman supply depot, rare Roman coins from the third century, three Anglo Saxon villages, an abandoned Medieval village.

When archaeological features are excavated, soil samples are collected and sent back to a laboratory for archaeobotanists to examine. These samples hold tiny but vital evidence that can shape our understanding of how, and where, people have cultivated crops, providing tantalising clues about the food, drink and occasionally clothing, in the past.