Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Greek Salad Dressing?

Okay, let’s get to some news.

From Discovery News, a report that scholars have been able to extract DNA from transport amphorae recovered from a shipwreck off the Greek island of Chios dating to the 4th century B.C. One contained olive oil blended with oregano (which the headline inexplicable calls ‘salad dressing’ – the text of the article, which says it would be used to ‘dress and flavor meals’ – is suitably vague given that it could have been used for lots of things. A second container contained DNA from the genus Pistacia, which could signal shipping of pistachio nuts but since amphoras are traditionally associated with transport of liquids, more likely signals wine blended with mastic, something akin to modern Greek resinated, or retsina wine. That would be particularly appropriate given the wreck’s location, as Chios in the Middle Ages was the primary supplier of mastic to Europe. That would also enable us to identify the wreck as a vessel leaving Chios, and not arriving there, which is consistent with some of the amphora types in the cargo, which are Chian. The source of the amphora containing the Pistacia DNA is not known, but if they contained Chian mastic, then logically they were probably made on the island as well.

The really cool thing is that the technique used to extract the DNA was extremely simple and could be applied to almost any pottery sample (though analyzing the DNA was no doubt time-consuming and expensive), meaning that we may have taken a major leap forward in our ability to source vessel contents. Oddly enough, given how crucial pottery is to reconstructing trade routes, our surmises as to what a vessel contained are often based on the flimsiest of evidence. In addition, there is a tendency to assume that if a particular amphora carried, say, wine, that every amphora of that type found was used to carry wine. We have enough evidence from multiple analyses to determine that transport vessels were rarely so strictly functionally segregated, but I think that as more such investigations are made there will be many more surprises in store.

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