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‘Oldest wine’ aged 2,000 years found in Roman tomb

Analysis of liquid preserved in a 2,000 year-old Roman grave urn found in Southern Spain has confirmed it is wine, and researchers have deemed it the oldest example ever found.

Researchers said their analysis suggests an ash urn dating back roughly 2,000 years contains the ‘oldest wine conserved in a liquid state’ that has so far been found.

In 2019, archaeologists in the Spanish city of Carmona near Seville unearthed a Roman necropolis dating to the 1st century AD/CE.

The site was unusual in that it was largely intact and did not appear to have been disturbed. The archaeologists surmised that it was a family mausoleum belonging to inhabitants of what was then, Carmo – an important town in the Roman province of Hispania Baetica.

Six niches (‘loculi’) in the walls of the chamber held urns with cremation remains inside. Several of these niches held further grave goods – such as beads, amber in a flax or hemp bag, preserved perfume and a glass bowl – but the urn in ‘loculus’ 8 was different.

Inside the lead urn was a glass jar called an ‘olla ossuaria’. As well as cremated bone remains and a gold ring bearing the image of the god Janus, the jar was full to the brim with a preserved, reddish liquid – about five litres in total.

According to the report, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, the researchers quickly noted that: ‘The liquid could not have reached the inside of the urn through flooding or leakage in the burial chamber, nor through condensation, especially when the inside of the urn in the adjacent niche, L-7, was under identical environmental conditions but completely dry.’

A rare opportunity

The presence of the liquid provided the archaeologists with a rare opportunity to analyse it and determine what it was.

After analysis using plasma mass spectrometry to determine the chemical elements, they concluded it was wine; making the liquid the oldest wine ever discovered.

Its presence in the chamber also ties in with what is known of Roman burial rituals, which often featured wine.

The report’s authors said: ‘Once the cremated remains were placed in it, the urn must have been filled with wine in a sort of libation ritual in the burial ceremony or as part of the burial rite to help the deceased in their transition to a better world.’

Previously, the oldest discovery of still liquid Roman wine was a glass jar found in the German city of Speyer in 1867.

That find has been dated to the 4th century AD but the liquid inside is only thought to be wine as it has never been chemically analysed.

The wine found in Carmona, therefore, is the first example of ancient wine that has been studied in liquid form.

As was noted in the report: ‘So far, all studies aimed at the chemical characterisation of Roman wines – or ancient wines in general – have relied on analyses of absorbed remains (carboxylic acids and polyphenols, mainly) in various types of vessels, but never on liquids.’

From oldest wine to modern wines

The pH of the liquid had degraded substantially, and at 7.5 is essentially water (wines typically have a pH of 3).

However, biomarker analysis was more conclusive with the researchers finding seven types of wine polyphenols in the liquid.

Furthermore, the polyphenols found in the 2,000 year-old wine matched those from wines still made in Andalusia today.

The wine was reddish brown in colour but this could be attributed to severe oxidation over the span of two millennia – in line with the degradation of its pH.

The absence of syringic acid, which forms by the decomposition of the pigment in red wines, also indicated that the original colour of the wine was white.

Polyphenolic markers in the ancient wine matched most closely with those found in Fino and Manzanilla styles made in Montilla-Moriles and Sanlúcar de Barrameda today – and to a close but lesser extent with those made in Jerez.

Quite how the wine once tasted or, indeed, tastes today remains a mystery.

Dr. José Rafael Ruiz Arrebola of the University of Córdoba, who led the chemical analysis, told The Guardian that he would have concerns about tasting it. Although tests showed the liquid was entirely non-toxic, it has spent 2,000 years in contact with human remains, he noted.

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