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Zhou Dynasty fruit wine

The Beibai’e cemetery in Shanxi, northern China contains the tombs of senior nobles from the Zhou Dynasty dating from the 11th century to 256 BC. A large-scale excavation by the Shanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology has exposed nine large- and medium-sized tombs and 17 ash pits used between 770 and 476 BC. The grave goods include copper, jade, and lacquer artworks, also objects made of bamboo, gold, and lead. Some 50 sets of bronzeware bear inscriptions that will throw light not only on burial customs, but on the ethnicity and social life of the nobility in southern Shanxi.

The excavators, under the direction of Cao Jun, also unearthed eight bronze kettles, two of which were still sealed and contained a clear liquid. Samples of the liquid, and of residues in some of the other kettles, yielded volatile organic compounds and organic acids associated with fruit wine.

Chinese fruit wines (guojiu), especially plum wine, are fermented alcoholic beverages made of fruit other than grapes, usually consumed between three to five years after fermentation. They are still widely consumed throughout the country, but the Beibai’e fruit wine is the first known that predates the Qin Dynasty that began in 221 BC. Clearly the Chinese nobility were enjoying such brews long before imperial times.

Brian Fagan reporting.

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