The Roman Empire has historically been associated with wine and winemaking. Now more has been revealed about how they made the drink, which was consumed by virtually everyone in the nation, rich and poor. The residues found in ceramic amphorae used to transport Roman wines have been the subject of a new study in Italy.
The study, published in PLUS ONE Diary focused on three Roman amphorae from San Felice Circeo , an ancient coastal settlement south-east of Rome deemed so important that a treaty of 509 B.C. between Rome and Carthage received special protection. The study used a multidisciplinary approach to examine residues in these amphorae and found, among other things, that both pollen and charcoal were present.
Analysis showed that these amphorae were used and reused by the massive Roman wine industry for both red and white wine.
Roman winemaking played a crucial cultural role
Wine played a crucial role in the cultural, social and religious fabric of ancient Rome. It was supposed to be drunk “every day”, making it a “democratic” drink. And not only the upper class enjoyed this delicious alcoholic beverage. It was produced in large quantities to quench the thirst of slaves, artisans, travelers, and common men and women in towns and villages.
In order to quench the thirst of an ever-increasing population, large quantities of wine had to be produced and transported throughout the year. A CBC report estimates that every Roman citizen drank a bottle of wine a day that was “milder” in alcohol than today’s Italian wines.
Since drinking water was not always clean enough across the Italian peninsula in the face of seasonal bacterial spikes, regular drinking of wine was thought to kill many of these health threats.
And wine was also a key ingredient in Roman religious practices and rituals. The Romans “revered” Bacchus (from the Greek god Dionysus) as the god of grape harvest, winemaking, fertility, religious ecstasy, and revelry.
To better understand Roman winemaking, the latest multidisciplinary study analyzed the residues found at the bottom of these three amphorae San Felice Circeo, on the Italian coast southwest of Rome. ( PLUS ONE )
A multidisciplinary analysis of the remains of Roman wine amphorae
A team of researchers led by Louise Chassouant of France’s University of Avignon sought to better understand ancient Roman winemaking by analyzing three amphorae preserved on the seabed off the coast of San Felice Circeo, Italy. They examined various chemical markers, tissues from plant debris, charcoal and pollen, which provided evidence of grape derivatives and pine residues in the jars.
“Our motivation was to examine the feasibility of using archaeobotanical tools to decipher the content of archaeological artifacts, and if possible then to develop a multidisciplinary approach,” said Chassouant ZME science . “And finally, one more conclusion about the archaeological importance of using pluridisciplinary angles of analysis. Pollen and charcoal analysis are underused in the archaeological study of artifacts and very little has actually been published about them. Therefore, the goal was to develop a methodology that enables this type of analysis of organic materials and to highlight the benefits that the method can bring to the field.”
What was in that Roman wine?
The pine tar, a preservative created by the slow burning of pine trees, was likely used to waterproof the jars and flavor the wine, which has been concocted by evidence from other Roman wine-growing sites. The tar was not local and was probably imported from Sicily or Calabria.
Grape pollen analysis revealed something unexpected. Traces of grape species found at the bottom of the amphorae indicated a wild variant, indicating 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’s possible that wild vines were in the process of being domesticated. The second explanation is that in many ancient Roman places only wild vine grapes were used for wine, although vines were already domesticated elsewhere. The third possibility is that they are domesticated grapes with wild morphological characteristics.
According to a 1st-century AD account by Pliny the Elder, a certain Roman ointment was made from grape wine. Further and deeper research could solve the mystery between wild and domesticated grapes posed by the residues found in the amphorae of San Felice Circeo. As Pliny once said: “There is truth in wine”.
“If there was one message to retain from this article, it would relate to the multidisciplinary methodology to be used. Indeed, by using different approaches to unravel the contents and manner of plating of Roman amphorae, we advanced the conclusion further in understanding ancient practices than would have been the case with a single approach,” the study authors concluded.
Image above: A new multidisciplinary study has examined Roman winemaking from the ground up by analyzing residues found in 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-research-29062022/.
Chassouant, L., Celant, A., et al . 2022. Archaeobotanical and chemical studies on wine amphorae from San Felice Circeo (Italy) provide information about grape drinks in Roman times . Available at: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0267129.
Davis, D. 2022. 1,500-year-old wine jars reveal secrets of the 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.