In 1897, eight gold and silver tubes, some adorned with bull figurines, were excavated from a vast Early Bronze Age burial mound, the Maikop kurgan, in the northern Caucasus, Russia. These ornate tubes, more than 5,000 years old and more than 1m long, were originally interpreted as sceptres, but a new study published in Antiquity suggests that they are drinking straws.
Barley starch granules from the residue inside one of the straws, which are now in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, hint that people were using them to drink beer.
Long straws were used for beer from the 3rd millennium BC in Sumeria, where straws survive, as do images of multiple straws drinking from a communal vessel (something also seen in seals from Iran and Iraq of the 5th-4th millennium BC). This was perhaps how the Maikop tubes were used (illustrated to the right).
A large vessel was also found in the kurgan, and the Sumerian and Maikop straws both include metal strainers to filter the beer.
‘If the interpretation is correct, these fancy devices would be the earliest surviving straws to date’, said lead author Viktor Trifonov from the Institute for the History of Material Culture, Russian Academy of Science.