DNA in Shipwrecked Jars Reveals Clues into Ancient Civilizations

Article excerpt

Scraping inside clay jars recovered from a 2,400-year-old shipwreck, two researchers found DNA fragments that revealed the jars' long-disappeared probable cargo: oregano, olive oil, and wine.

The genetic technique, developed by Maria Hansson and Brendan Foley, offers a new window into ancient civilizations. Two-handled earthenware jars, called amphorae, were commonly used to store and transport goods in the ancient world, especially by sea. But sunken amphorae usually come up empty, leaving archaeologists with little to go on.

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"Imagine if you were asked to analyze the American economy just by looking at the empty shells of 40-foot (12-meter) shipping containers," said Foley, a deep-sea archaeologist with joint appointments at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Foley was co-leader of a 2005 expedition with the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research to survey a shipwreck off the Greek island of Chios in the Aegean Sea. Hansson, a molecular biologist from Lund University (and former postdoctoral scholar at WHOI), suggested trying DNA sampling techniques to detect residues of the jars' original contents. …