Secrets of Roman Winemaking Revealed By Pollen-Charcoal Residue Analysis
The Roman empire has historically been associated with wine and winemaking. Now more about just how they produced the beverage that was consumed by practically all in the nation, rich or poor, has been revealed. The residues found in the ceramic amphorae jars used to transport Roman wine have been the subject of a new study in Italy.
The study, published in PLOS ONE journal, focused on three Roman amphorae from San Felice Circeo , an ancient seaside settlement southeast of Rome, deemed so important that it was given special protection in a 509 BC treaty between Rome and Carthage. The study used a multidisciplinary approach to look at residues in these amphorae and found, among other things, both pollen and charcoal present.
The analysis showed that these amphorae were used and reused by the massive Roman winemaking industry for both red and white wine.
Roman Winemaking Played Crucial Cultural Roles
Wine played a crucial role in the cultural, social, and religious fabric of ancient Rome. In fact, it was supposed to be drunk “every day,” making it a “democratic” drink. And the upper classes were not the only ones who enjoyed this delicious alcoholic beverage. It was produced in huge quantities to slake the thirst of slaves, craftsmen, travelers, and ordinary men and women, in towns and villages.
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To meet the thirsty appetite of an always expanding populace, great amounts of wine had to be produced and transported through the year. A CBC report estimates that every Roman citizen consumed a bottle of wine daily, which was alcoholically “milder” than the Italian wines of today.
Since drinking water across the Italian Peninsula was not always clean enough, given seasonal bacteria level spikes, drinking wine regularly was believed to kill many of these health threats.
And wine was also a key ingredient for Roman religious practices and rituals. The Romans “worshipped” Bacchus (from the Greek god Dionysus) as the god of the grape harvest, winemaking, fertility, religious ecstasy, and festivity.
To understand Roman winemaking better the latest multidisciplinary study analyzed the residues found at the bottom of these three amphorae from San Felice Circeo, on the Italian coast southwest of Rome. (PLOS ONE)
A Multidisciplinary Analysis of Roman Wine Amphorae Residues
A team of researchers led by Louise Chassouant from France’s Avignon University attempted to understand ancient Roman winemaking better by analyzing three amphorae conserved at the bottom of the sea off the coast from San Felice Circeo, Italy. They looked at various chemical markers, plant residue tissue, charcoal, and pollen, which provided evidence of grape derivatives and pine residue within the jars.
“Our motivation was to check the feasibility to use archaeobotanical tools to unravel the content of archaeological artifacts and if possible, then to develop a multidisciplinary approach,” Chassouant said to ZME Science. “And finally, to conclude about the archaeological meaning of using plurisdisciplinary angles of analysis. Pollen and charcoal analysis are too rarely used in the archaeological investigation of artifacts and really little has been published on it. Therefore, the purpose was to develop a methodology to allow this kind of analysis from organic materials and to highlight the benefits the method can bring to the field.”
What was in this Roman Wine?
The pine tar, a preservative created through the slow burning of pine trees, was probably used to waterproof the jars and flavor the wine, which has been collaborated by evidence from other Roman winemaking sites. The tar was not local and was probably imported from Sicily or Calabria.
The grape pollen analysis revealed something unexpected. The grape species evidence found at the bottom of the amphorae indicated a wild variant suggesting local wine production at a time when there was no documented evidence of grapevine domestication. According to Chassouant this suggested three possible explanations.
First, it is possible that wild grapevines were in the process of being domesticated. The second explanation is that only wild vine grapes were used for wines in many ancient Roman localities even if grape vines had been domesticated elsewhere already. The third possibility is that these were domesticated grapes bearing wild morphological features.
According to an account from Pliny, the Elder, from the 1st century AD, a certain Roman ointment was made using grape wine. Further and deeper research may yet solve the wild versus domesticated grapes conundrum presented by the residues found in the San Felice Circeo amphorae. As Pliny famously said, "There's truth in wine."
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“If there was a message to be retained from this article, it would be related to the multidisciplinary methodology to be applied. Indeed, by using different approaches to unravel the content and nature of the coating layer of Roman amphorae, we have pushed the conclusion further in the understanding of ancient practices than it would have been with a single approach,” concluded the study authors.
Top image: A new multidisciplinary study has looked at Roman winemaking from the ground up through the analysis of residues found at the bottom three Roman wine amphorae. A group of amphorae recovered from the sea off the coast of Tuscany, Italy. Source: Salvatore / Adobe Stock
By Sahir Pandey
Andrei, M. 2022. Underwater jars, pollen, and charcoal could show us how the Romans made wine. Available at: https://www.zmescience.com/science/archaeology/roman-wine-multidisciplinary-reseach-29062022/.
Chassouant, L., Celant, A., et al. 2022. Archaeobotanical and chemical investigations on wine amphorae from San Felice Circeo (Italy) shed light on grape beverages at the Roman time. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0267129.
Davis, D. 2022. 1,500-Year-Old Wine Jars Reveal Secrets Of Roman Art Of Winemaking, Study Finds. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/darreonnadavis/2022/06/29/1500-year-old-wine-jars-reveal-secrets-of-roman-art-of-winemaking-study-finds/?sh=6c133d63307b.