October 14, 2011

Ancient DNA suggests Greek amphorae carried more than wine

Journal of Archaeological Science doi:10.1016/j.jas.2011.09.025

Aspects of Ancient Greek trade re-evaluated with amphora DNA evidence

Brendan P. Foley et al.

Ancient DNA trapped in the matrices of ceramic transport jars from Mediterranean shipwrecks can reveal the goods traded in the earliest markets. Scholars generally assume that the amphora cargoes of 5th-3rd century B.C. Greek shipwrecks contained wine, or to a much lesser extent olive oil. Remnant DNA inside empty amphoras allows us to test that assumption. We show that short ∼100 nucleotides of ancient DNA can be isolated and analyzed from inside the empty jars from either small amounts of physical scrapings or material captured with non-destructive swabs. Our study material is previously inaccessible Classical/Hellenistic Greek shipwreck amphoras archived at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities in Athens, Greece. Collected DNA samples reveal various combinations of olive, grape, Lamiaceae herbs (mint, rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage), juniper, and terebinth/mastic (genus Pistacia). General DNA targeting analyses also reveal the presence of pine (Pinus), and DNA from Fabaceae (Legume family); Zingiberaceae (Ginger family); and Juglandaceae (Walnut family). Our results demonstrate that amphoras were much more than wine containers. DNA shows that these transport jars contained a wide range of goods, bringing into question long-standing assumptions about amphora use in ancient Greece. Ancient DNA investigations open new research avenues, and will allow accurate reconstruction of ancient diet, medicinal compounds, value-added products, goods brought to market, and food preservation methods.



Maju said...

I understand that ancient Greeks drank wine that was anything but just wine. For what I have read, the wine was so heavily doped with other drugs and substances that it became common to dilute it in a lot of water in order to be able to drink.

Is it possible that the herbs and nuts detected pertain to at least the aromatic aspects of wine production in Ancient Greece?

Pascvaks said...

Very interesting! Another veil is lifted. Many questions, but these can wait for further tests and confirmations.

Onur Dincer said...

We should br cautious of the conclusions of the paper. Some of those herbs and seeds may actually be flavoring substances used in wine and/or olive oil.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

It would be interesting to know if there is any evidence regarding whether these items were shipped dry, or infused in wine and/or olive oil as a preservative.

Unknown said...

Well many wines are flavoured with herbs and spices. I had a glass of hot sweetened Cabernet Sauvignon with cloves only last night.

Terebinth is a wine preservative, and tinctures (medicines in alcohol are an ancient phenomenon. So not too surprising.

eurologist said...

We should be cautious of the conclusions of the paper. Some of those herbs and seeds may actually be flavoring substances used in wine ...

I agree. Mint, rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage, juniper, and especially pine have been used both as preservatives and flavoring agents for millennia; legumes are easily transported high-protein staples, walnut has both culinary and cosmetic value. The only outlier is ginger, since it needs some care (I am currently doing this) and is not very productive in Mediterranean climates.

genefan said...

I think the ancient Greeks were fighting the inevitable turning the wine to vinegar in their hot climate.
For that reason they added lime and different flavouring agents - as preservatives or to mask the sour taste.
The glass bottles were not invented yet, as for barrels they cut off their oak forests at an early stage to build ships. Earthenware amphora were porous and let oxygen in, turning all wine to vinegar at spring.

Anonymous said...

The Roman shipwrecks have returned amphores containing a variety of goods, like dried fruits and cereals, not only wine and oil.
They used the amphores as usual container for many goods, and I think the Greeks did the same.