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Study reveals glimpse of ancient Roman winemaking

Analysis of Roman-era 'wine jars' has suggested producers in coastal Italy may have made wines from native grapes and used pine tar to waterproof the containers, according to new research.

Jars recovered from the seabed and dating back to the Roman period have offered more clues about winemaking and storage in this era, according to a study that used a mixture of analysis techniques.

A combination of chemical markers, plant tissue residue and pollen analysis helped researchers to build a picture about the possible contents of three amphorae ‘wine jars’ discovered near the coastal town of San Felice Circeo, around 90km south-east of Rome.

‘The evidence suggests the amphorae were used in both red and white winemaking processes,’ said a press release on the study, which was published in the peer-reviewed PLOS One journal this week.

Researchers also found evidence of pine residue in the jars, and it’s thought that pine tar pitch may have been used to waterproof the amphorae.

But the researchers added the pine was also perhaps used to flavour the wine, and noted evidence of this practice has been found at other archaeological sites.

Pine tar pitch was likely transported from modern-day Calabria or Sicily, said the study’s authors. Historical sources from the time, including Pliny the Elder, mention these areas as renowned for pitch production.

Researchers said that traces of grapevine pollen in the jars matched local plant species samples.

‘Based on the finds of aporate Vitis pollen, found also in local modern and Middle Pleistocene samples, we hypothesise the use of autochthonous vines,’ they said.

Yet researchers weren’t able to confirm whether vines were domesticated or wild, and also offered several hypotheses around the jars’ precise contents.

The authors of the PLOS One study, led by Louise Chassouant of Avignon University, emphasised the benefits of their multi-disciplinary approach to examining artefacts.

‘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,’ they said.

Several studies have explored the history of wine in different societies and eras more directly. Last year, a major winery complex dating back around 1,500 years was unearthed by archaeologists in Israel.

Access the full PLOS One article, which is freely available.

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