Amphorae that are over 2,000 years old shed light on Roman winemaking secrets

Wine was one of the most popular beverages in ancient Rome. Whether white, amber or red, the drink was consumed daily at all meals and also accompanied religious ceremonies. But how did these wines really taste? And how were they made? This is the mystery that scientists are still trying to shed light on.

Research has shown that wine was not consumed pure in Roman times, but cut with water. The results also helped highlight some ingredients involved in the design of the brew. It is to this last category that the study was published in late June in the journal PLOS ET.

Led by Italian and French researchers, this work focused on three amphorae found in 2018 in the depths off the coast of San Felice Circeo in Italy. Observations showed that they belonged to types of pottery designed between the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE and primarily used to hold wine.

Hence their interest in the team of Louise Chassouant, chemist from the University of Avignon and La Sapienza University in Rome. These amphorae “offered a rare opportunity to develop interdisciplinary research through archaeobotanical and chemical analyzes”The authors explain in their report.

Vinpollen and pine resin

The latter thus used various techniques, including gas chromatography coupled with a mass spectrometer, to reveal the secrets of the containers. The analyzes made it possible to explore the organic remains that they still contained, both in the pottery itself and in the waterproofing layer with which the amphorae were covered.

In the same remains, the researchers were particularly interested in the presence of wine pollen. The results confirmed that the amphorae had been used to make wine, both white and red, and that local plants had been used, although traces are missing to determine if they were already tamed at that time.

In particular, the researchers have made comparative analyzes of the wine pollen found in the remains of the amphorae (from E to J). © Chassouant et al., PLoS ONE 2022

The study also revealed traces of pine resin, which appear to have been used to waterproof the containers and perhaps to taste the beverage. In contrast to the previous ingredients, historical sources suggest that the plant was probably non-local and imported from Calabria or Sicily in southwestern Italy.

This discovery suggests the existence of a regional trade route that had not been identified before, according to Louise Chassouant. Although some conclusions need to be supported by further research, the scientist and her colleagues emphasized the interest in the interdisciplinary methods used for this study.

By using different approaches to reveal the content and nature of the coating layer of Roman amphorae, we have pushed conclusions further in the understanding of ancient practices than with a simple approach.“, they said in a press release calling for similar investigations into other artifacts.

A former anchorage off San Felice Circeo?

It was after a winter storm that occurred in 2018 that archeological discoveries were made off San Felice Circeo. The presence of many pottery from different periods, in a fragmented and relatively scattered state, suggests that the site was once an anchorage area close to a Roman canal.

The recent discovery of Dressel 1A-type amphorae also suggested the presence of a small wreck, which, however, needs to be confirmed by underwater exploration.

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