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Roman Wine Barrels Reveal Details Of Intricate Roman Trade and Craft

Roman Wine Barrels Reveal Details Of Intricate Roman Trade and Craft

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Archaeologists digging on the banks of the Vesle River near Reims in northern France in 2008 unearthed something unusual. They found three large and remarkably well-preserved ancient Roman wooden wine barrels. They were certain the barrels were constructed at some time in the far-distant past but it  was initially impossible to place the wine barrels in time with exact precision. However, it was eventually determined that they had been assembled sometime between the first and fourth centuries AD and were of Roman origin.

The Roman wine barrels were discovered during excavations led by French archaeologist Philippe Rollet, and they have been subjected to intensive study by Rollet and his colleagues in the years since. When they were found, it was clear they had been most recently used as rainwater collection barrels, but chemical testing revealed minute traces of malic and  tartaric acid  that had been absorbed into the wooden staves (the curved planks used to construct the barrels). These acids are products of  alcohol fermentation , which meant the barrels must have originally been used to store wine. 

Details about this discovery and the years-long analysis it sparked were revealed in a late 2020 edition of the open access journal  Gallia, which reports on Roman-era archaeological finds in Western Europe.

One of the three Roman wine barrels found in Reims, France. (Inrap)

One of the three Roman wine barrels found in Reims, France. ( Inrap)

Making Roman Wine Barrels: A Timeless Art 

The Reim’s Roman wine barrels were constructed almost exclusively from materials harvested in Northern Europe: the barrel staves were made from European silver fir, the hoops from hazelnut tree saplings, and the sealant from  pine wood pitch . This indicates they were likely made by local barrel makers or  coopers, whose services were contracted by merchants or wholesalers operating in the northern half of the thriving and geographically expansive  Roman Empire  wine trade network. The barrels were built to hold up to 317 gallons (1,200 liters) of wine, which would be enough to fill 1,500 bottles manufactured to modern-day standards.

The nearly flawless condition of the barrels made it possible for researchers to study their physical characteristics in depth. What they discovered was a great continuity between the work of ancient craftsmen and modern-day coopers. While there are slight differences, the latter essentially relied on the same types of tools, materials, shaping techniques, and  sealing methodologies  that were used 2,000 years ago. 

The arts of barrel making and  winemaking are equally ancient, and modern artisans working in these fields are left to concoct variations on themes that have been producing impressive results for centuries.

Wine trade brand markings on the Roman wine barrels found in Reims, France. (J.-J. Bigot (top) ; F. Moiret (bottom) / Inrap)

Wine trade brand markings on the Roman wine barrels found in Reims, France. (J.-J. Bigot (top) ; F. Moiret (bottom) /  Inrap)

Roman-Era Wine Trade Revealed, In All Its Glory

Whether they know it or not, the manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers who ply their trades in the marketplaces of today are also following in the giant footsteps laid down by the ancient Romans. 

The wine trade  in the Roman Empire was precisely organized to seamlessly link makers, distributers, and consumers across the entire continent of Europe. The wine would normally be shipped by river or by sea, before being transported by land to its intended destination. Emitting the virtual aspects of modern commerce, the expansive trading network created by the Romans to facilitate the distribution of one of its most popular products would be the envy of any 21 st century industry. 

The complexity of the Roman wine trading system was revealed by a series of brands and signatures found on the outside of the barrels discovered at Reims, and on the outside of Roman wine barrels that have been discovered in other locations as well. These distinctive markings were left by a broad range of craftspeople and economic actors and represent a kind of ancient record keeping that helps archaeologists and historians reconstruct the complicated workings of the Roman wine trade. 

“Stave makers used these marks, specific to their craft, to mark their work with their name or that of the workshop owner,” explained archaeologists Philippe Rollet and Pierre Mille in their  Gallia article. “Once the barrel was assembled, the cooper [also] branded his mark on it with a hot iron.”

Evidence of brands and signatures on the Reim’s Roman wine barrels. (J.-J. Bigot (left) ; F. Moiret (right) / Inrap)

Evidence of brands and signatures on the Reim’s Roman wine barrels. (J.-J. Bigot (left) ; F. Moiret (right) /  Inrap)

But this was only the beginning. Before sending the barrels off to suppliers to be filled, the  wine merchant  who purchased or owned the barrel would also add his mark, to make sure the barrel would be returned to the right source. Still another mark would be added to the barrel by the supplier, once he had filled it with the wine the merchant had ordered. 

After the filled barrel was returned to the merchant, he might add another mark to designate the identity of the purchaser. When the barrel was turned over to the shipper, he would also add his distinctive stamp before taking it up or down the river for delivery. Even the winemakers would get into the act, occasionally adding a graffiti-like signature to the barrel before the supplier returned it to the merchant. 

“It thus becomes clear that many different agents in the wine sector were involved,” Rollet and Mille wrote, summarizing their analysis of the markings on the three barrels excavated at Reims. “This network brought together winegrowers, craftsmen, merchants, sponsors, transporters, and sworn agents in circulations of remarkable geographical, provincial, and economic scope, based—as was the ancient textile industry—on the collaboration of a very large number of specialized craftsmen.”

Detailed view of the three middle circles on barrel F354. (Inrap)

Detailed view of the three middle circles on barrel F354. ( Inrap)

Raising A Glass To The Fine Winemakers of Ancient Rome

It was typical for this type of wine barrel to stay in use for 25-30 years, before being recycled or repurposed.

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Over the course of their lifespan, the three barrels found at Reims likely traveled far and wide throughout the region, acting as reliable containers for a highly desired product that helped establish and extend the Roman Empire’s vast economic reach while it was at the height of its power. 

The Roman wine barrels are now on public display in Reims, at an exhibition sponsored by the French wine-making company Champagne Taittinger.

Top image: Old wine barrels that were likely not too different from the Roman wine barrels found in Riems, France.                     Source:  kite_rin / Adobe Stock

By Nathan Falde

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