An exciting new study from Russia has reinterpreted an 1897 find of silver and gold tubes from a Bronze Age burial mound in Maikop in the northern Caucasus as being straws rather than scepters as previously believed. At over 5,000 years old, this makes them the oldest drinking straws to have been found so far.
Veselovsky’s 1897 sketch of the primary burial showing the position of the eight gold and silver tubes (b). On the right an 1898 photograph of the so-called scepters. (Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg / Antiquity)
The Back Story to the Oldest Drinking Straws Found at Maikop
In 1897, archaeologist Nikolai Veselovsky of St. Petersburg University excavated a huge burial mound on the outskirts of the small town of Maikop in the north-western Caucasus of Russia. The burial mound or kurgan yielded an elite Bronze Age burial that was dated to between 3700 and 3100 BC.
The 10-meter-high (32 ft) kurgan with a 200 meter (656 ft) circumference was divided into three chambers. The chambers varied in size, each holding an adult skeleton lying in a crouched position. The largest chamber, which was also the most richly furnished with funerary offerings, was believed to be the primary burial. This skeleton was covered with the remains of a resplendent garment and adorned with beads of semi-precious stone and gold.
The plentiful grave goods were mostly arranged along the walls of the chamber. They consisted of both precious and ordinary goods, such as ceramic vessels, precious metal cups, weapons, and tools. The exception was a set of eight long, thin, gold and silver tubes, four of which were decorated with a small gold or silver bull figurine . These tubes, each of which was over a meter (3 feet) long, were placed to the immediate right-hand side of the skeleton.
The entire contents of the tombs, including the collection of tubes, were soon transferred to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg , where they were displayed to the tsar’s family and special guests at the annual exhibition of the Imperial Archaeological Commission. A photo from the exhibition shows one complete and seven partially corroded tubes on display in four boxes. Professor Veselovsky identified the tubes as scepters. Some other experts speculated that they were poles meant to hold up a foldable canopy during the funeral procession.
Schematic drawing of the gold and silver tubes found in the Maikop kurgan, now believed to be the oldest drinking straws discovered to date. (V. Trifonov / Antiquity Publications Ltd )
A New Interpretation of an Old Find
The new study that will be published in the February 2022 issue of the journal Antiquity and available online today , reviews these earlier interpretations and offers a new hypothesis of the purpose of the tubes. An analysis of the residue from their inner surface revealed barley starch granules and this, taken together with later evidence from the Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), suggested that these tubes might in fact have been drinking straws. Being over 5,000 years old, if this hypothesis is correct it would make them the oldest drinking straws in existence.
“A turning point was the discovery of the barley starch granules in the residue from the inner surface of one of the straws,” explained Dr. Viktor Trifonov from the Institute for the History of Material Culture, Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg. “This provided direct material evidence of the tubes from the Maikop kurgan being used for drinking.” As a result, the study has concluded that the straws were used for drinking beer. However, that the barley was fermented could not be clearly established.
Components of the drinking straws discovered within the Maikop kurgan burial mound, including perforated tips, joints and fittings. (V. Trifonov / Antiquity)
Sumerian art depicts several straws placed in a communal vessel, allowing people sitting or standing nearby to sip from it together. Drinking beer through long straws was common practice in Sumeria from the third millennium BC. In fact, the Maikop tubes had several features in common with straws recovered from Sumeria. In particular, most of the Sumerian straws had metal strainers to filter out the impurities common in ancient beer, as do the Maikop straws.
Although the Maikop tubes appear to be the oldest drinking straws to have been discovered to date, they do not constitute the oldest evidence of such implements. Seals from Iran and Iraq from the fifth to fourth millennium BC show people drinking through them from communal vessels. Another piece of evidence from the Maikop kurgan, that ties up with the tubes being used as drinking straws, is the find of a large drinking vessel that could hold enough beer for each of the eight drinkers to imbibe 7 pints (3 liters).
Reconstructed use of the oldest drinking straws, found in the Maikop kurgan. (V. Trifonov / Antiquity)
Are These Tube-Straws Evidence of Long-Distance Ties?
While the earliest evidence of drinking straws was found from Mesopotamia, if the hypothesis advanced by the new study is correct, the oldest existing drinking straws were found hundreds of kilometers away in the northern Caucasus. However, the authors do not believe they were locally manufactured. In fact, they believe that this discovery indicates long-distance contact between the two regions. This would mean that by the end of the fourth millennium BC drinking straws had become part of local funerary practices .
“The finds contribute to a better understanding of the ritual banquets‘ early beginnings and drinking culture in hierarchical societies,” said Dr. Trifonov. Such practices must have been important and popular enough to spread between the two regions. In Sumeria, such ceremonies were often a part of royal funerals. These fancy straws being found in the elite Maikop kurgan, and their position close to the deceased, hints that these lavish burials may have also taken place in the Caucasus.
The discovery of the drinking straws in the Russian northern Caucasus gives a whole new cultural implication to the Maikop burial and points to funerary feasts having become part of local practice, at least in elite burials. Or perhaps the straws were included in the burial so that the deceased would be able to enjoy banquets in the afterlife.
Top image: Recreation of the oldest drinking straws, found at the Maikop burial, in use. Source: Kevin Wilson / Antiquity Publications Ltd
By Sahir Pandey