Cheers! High-tech study of underwater jars reveals secrets of Roman winemaking

ROME — The secrets of Roman winemaking have been revealed by a high-tech new study of jars found underwater.

Researchers discovered that in coastal Italy during the Roman Empire, wine was made using native grapes in jars waterproofed with imported tar pitch. A team from Italy and France examined three Roman period amphorae from a seabed deposit near the modern harbor of San Felice Circeo, southeast of Rome.

A combination of chemical markers, plant tissue residue, and pollen provided evidence of grape derivatives and pine within the jars.

The team says their evidence suggests the amphorae was a part of both red and white winemaking processes, while the pine helped to create tar for waterproofing the jars and perhaps also flavoring the wine. Archaeologists have made similar observations at other ancient sites.

Roman winemaking
From the amphorae to understanding the content; this multi-analytical analysis relied on archaeobotany and molecular identification. (Credit: Avignon University)

The grapevine pollen matches wild species from the area, suggesting that Roman winemakers used local plants, although it’s still unclear whether these were domesticated at the time.

The pine tar, on the other hand, is non-local. Researchers believe it was imported from Calabria or Sicily, based on other historical sources.

The research team emphasized the importance of the multidisciplinary approach to characterize cultural practices from archaeological artifacts.

Chassouant says the identification of plant remains, chemical analysis, historical and archaeological records, amphorae design, and previous findings all contributed to the conclusions in this new analysis. It also provides an example of methodology for interpreting a history beyond the artifacts which would not be possible using a single technique.

“If there was a message to be retained from the reading of this article, it would be related to the multidisciplinary methodology to be applied,” says study lead author Louise Chassouant of Avignon University in a media release.

“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.”

The findings are published in the journal PLOS One.

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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