Ancient Wine Recycling

It seems that the Ancient Greeks were into recycling their wine amphorae according to a report in Nature News. Recent DNA analysis suggests that Greek sailors traded a wide range of foods — not just wine, as many historians have assumed.

The study (Journal of Archaeological Science) found evidence of vegetables, herbs and nuts in nine jars taken from Mediterranean shipwrecks.

The range of ingredients found in each jar suggests that amphorae were commonly reused, and that they may have contained more complex foodstuffs than previously imagined, incorporating herbal flavourings or preservatives. The researchers say DNA tests of shipwrecked jars illuminate early trade markets in the Mediterranean.

Archaeologist Brendan Foley of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts and geneticist Maria Hansson of Lund University, Sweden, retrieved DNA from 9 amphorae from sunken ships dating from the 5th to the 3rd centuries BC.

The collected DNA samples revealed various combinations olive, grape, mint, rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage, juniper, terebinth (an aromatic flowering tree used to make turpentine, medicines and soap), pine, legumes (peas, beans, lentils), ginger and walnut.

Foley says historians tend to assume that these containers were used mainly to transport wine — in a survey of 27 peer-reviewed studies describing 5,860 amphorae, he found that 95% of the jars were described as having carried wine.

To test that assumption, he and Hansson first investigated an amphora that was donated to WHOI by the French diver and explorer Jacques Cousteau, but it yielded only a Carling Black Label beer can from the 1950s.

So they gained permission from Greek authorities to test amphorae that had been held in storerooms in Athens since their retrieval as many as 20 years ago. This time, the tests were successful, possibly because the jars had been kept in the dark, protecting the DNA from the damaging effects of sunlight.”

The team already have plans to analyse samples taken from a fully excavated third-century-BC wreck that was found near Kyrenia, Cyprus. Foley says he would also like to screen amphorae of different ages to build a picture of how ancient trade developed over time, pinpointing when different crops were introduced.

Theotokis Theodoulou, an archaeologist at the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities in Athens and a co-author on the paper, says there are “several thousand” amphorae held in store rooms around Greece, which could now be tested.

Incidentally Jacques Cousteau discovered 1500 Roman amphorae in a ship wrecked cargo vessel from the 3rd century B.C. at Grand Congloué (10 miles off Marseilles) in 1952-3. The amphorae were made at/or near Cosa in Etruria. The cargo was evidently destined for markets in Gaul, where Celtic chieftains had developed a taste for wine and tableware supplied by Roman merchants.

You might be interested to know that Cousteau’s cousins, the Theallet/Piton family make wine at Chateau Belles-Graves in Lalande de Pomerol.

Cousteau often visited the château and enjoyed the getting involved in the harvest of the grapes as he has done as a young man.

The wines of Belles-Graves have therefore travelled the world on board his research vessel the Calypso, and indeed continue to do so today aboard the Alcyone accompanying the expeditions of the Equipe Cousteau, the team that continue much of the work he started.

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