Jars of Plenty: Ancient Greek Trading Vessels Carried Much More Than Wine

By Gaidos, Susan | Science News, December 17, 2011 | Go to article overview

Jars of Plenty: Ancient Greek Trading Vessels Carried Much More Than Wine


Gaidos, Susan, Science News


Wine flowed freely from ancient Greece during its golden age, but new work suggests nuts and various herbs were also in demand.

With the help of DNA analysis, scientists are getting a present-day look at centuries-old trade in the Mediterranean. Such studies may help debunk some long-held assumptions, namely that the bulk of Greek commerce revolved around wine.

During the fifth through third centuries B.C., the Mediterranean and Black seas were major thoroughfares for ships loaded with thousands of curvaceous jars known as amphorae, thought from their shape to contain a drink made from fermented grape juice.

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But only recently have researchers peered through the lens of 21st century genetics to identify the actual remnants of the jars' long-disappeared cargo. Analyses of DNA fragments from the interior of nine jars from Mediterranean shipwrecks now reveal various combinations of olive, ginger, walnut and herbs in the rosemary family, along with the expected grapes.

The findings, reported in an upcoming Journal of Archaeological Science, suggest that the ancient Greeks produced and traded a wide range of foods. The economy of the time was much more sophisticated than previously thought, says Brendan Foley, an archaeologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who coauthored the work with biologist Maria Hansson of Lund University in Sweden and colleagues at the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

Some of the jars selected for the study had been stored on shelves for nearly two decades, suggesting that DNA buried within the amphora walls remains viable long after the jars are brought up from underwater.

"That opens the possibility that many of the artifacts that are in museum storehouses or other collections may still contain information about their original contents," Foley says.

With such information, scientists could reconstruct a more accurate picture of the crops being grown and the products changing hands when the world's first complex economies were getting under way, possibly gaining clues to the agriculture, technologies, art and geopolitics that played into daily life.

Crimes and clues

A period of rapid expansion and population growth throughout the Mediterranean began around the fifth century B.C. Classical Greece was transformed from a simple peasant society to a sophisticated civilization, and Greek merchants began using currency. Instead of swapping for goods in kind, merchants were paid for their products and services with small coins of silver, gold or an alloy of the two, electrum.

To determine what was being traded for those coins, scientists look to artifacts, including amphorae still neatly packed aboard sunken merchant ships or strewn across the Mediterranean seabed.

Foley, who has recovered dozens of such containers in his deep-sea explorations, says that different civilizations from different locations and times established their own style of making amphorae. The Greek versions, with their long narrow necks and handles on either side, were assumed to be ideal cargo containers for wine and olive oil.

When Foley surveyed the scientific literature, he found 27 articles in peer-reviewed journals that directly spoke of amphora contents from Greece's golden age. In the articles, 95 percent of the 5,860 Greek amphorae were described as wine vessels.

The finding raised a red flag, he says. "To me, it didn't seem reasonable to assume that 95 percent of all trade goods in these jars were one commodity."

To find out what was carried inside the jars, he turned to Hansson, who suggested searching for DNA evidence. Though some archaeologists had flirted with the idea of collecting DNA samples from the jars in the early 1990s, those researchers had little success.

Hansson says that the tools of the trade have improved dramatically since then, making today's DNA analysis much cheaper and friendlier to use. …

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