Alcohol in times gone by
(appeared in Sep 2017)

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The Italians had a wine making industry as long back as three thousand years ago, says S.Ananthanarayanan.

There are suggestions that wine making may predate organised agriculture. This may well be true as many kinds of fruit, if bruised in storage, would ferment and result in wine. It is not the same with beer, or wine from grain, as this needs grain in quantity and a process. Even in the case of wine, however, accidental production would not amount to an industry. It would be so only if production is in quantity and the produce is stored for later use.

Davide Tanasi, Enrico Greco, Valeria Di Tullio, Donatella Capitani, Domenica Gullì, Enrico Ciliberto, from the universities of South Florida and Catania, Italy and institutes in Rome and Agrigento, Italy, report in Elsevier’s Microchemical Journal, the evidence that wine was produced and stored in Italy by the first millennium BCE. The evidence has come from the deposits of organic matter found on shards of ceramic storage vessels in excavations at Monte Kronio, a limestone formation on the south-west coast of Sicily. The authors of the paper describe a new approach to archaeological studies, with the help of laboratory methods, to divine the culinary and dietary habits of ancient civilisations.

There have, of course, been other reports of alcohol production in ancient times. Instances are of the production of beer in the 6th century BCE in Rocquepertuse, north of Marseilles, in France and even earlier, as far back as 3,000 BCE, of beer produced in the Shaanxi district in the north-west of China. In 2011, the journal, Human Biology carried a report of scientists of CNRS, Montpellier having found raw material and equipment unmistakably for making beer in the excavation of the site of a Celtic monastery. The floor of one of the dwelling also contained half burnt barley grains, apparently left over from the kilning process that is used in making beer.

The dwelling contained the vessels where barley may have been steeped, before being spread out to germinate and then the remains of an oven, where germinating barley may have been dried. Grindstones, the hearth and containers suggested beer making activity, which may have been part of a local tradition as well as an item of trade and communication with other communities in the Mediterranean.

The discovery in China, which is even more ancient, is in the basin of the Yellow River, considered a cradle of civilisation and teeming with archaeological finds. The discovery reported in PNAS in 2013, is of artefacts recovered from two pits, and which were carbon dated to 3,400 to 2,900 BCE. The artefacts consisted of intact, wide mouthed funnels and pieces of wide mouthed pots and amphorae and stoves, which appeared to be specifically for brewing, filtration and storage and for heating and temperature control.

The residues found on the vessels contained specks of starch, which could come from grain, and particles of mineral, the phytoliths, which are commonly found in remains of decomposed plant material. The starch grains were identified as being almost all from millets and varieties of wheat or barley and partly from tubers, like yam, which are found in the region. While this suggests a recipe for beer with strength, stability and flavour, the grains of starch also showed signs of damage – pitting and being swollen or folded, which are like what is produced during the brewing process. During malting, enzymes start the process of breaking down starch into sugars and cause pits in the starch grains. And then, during mashing, when the grains are in warm water, they swell and lose shape. “Thus, the damaged state of the starch grains in our archaeological sample provides strong evidence for the conclusion that those starch grains are residues from the brewing process,” the PNAS paper had stated. Chemical analysis of the residue also showed traces of calcium oxalate. Calcium oxalate, which settles as ‘beerstone’ on beer making equipment, is an unmistakable sign of beer brewing activity. The presence of oxalate hence confirms that the prehistoric vessels had been used for beer brewing.

Wine in Italy

The Italy based study published in the Microchemical Journal undertakes detailed laboratory investigation of organic residues on the pottery remains at two prehistoric sites in Sicily. The goal, as the study states, was “to shed new light on the use of certain ceramic shapes and infer some hypothesis about ancient dietary habits”. The remains covered the Middle Bronze Age (1550–1250 BCE) and till the Early Iron Age (1050–950 BCE).

The team concentrated on detailed analyses of the available archaeological material, using traditional as well as the latest methods. They carried out renewed carbon dating, structural study of animal skeletal remains and chemical and other analyses of ceramics and organic residues. And they further limited the study to an Early Iron Age cooking jar.

They used a combination of methods, including Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, where organic compounds are identified by spikes in the absorption of specific frequencies of radiation, analysis of the spectrum of Infra-Red light absorbed by the residue and the use of the Scanning Electron Microscope.

Bringing to bear this brace of methods revealed, the authors say, much detail about the food and dietary habits of those ancient people. But one significant matter that the study revealed is that the residue on one of the vessels found in Monte Kronio had traces of tartaric acid and its sodium salt. Tartaric acid is an important component of wine and plays the role of ensuring the chemical stability of wine. The acid is not very frequent among plants and fruit, but it is present in grapes. This is surely the reason that wine is most frequently made from grape.

The presence of tartaric acid and its salts in the residue on the Monte Kronio vessels is hence an indicator that the vessels, circa 1,000 BCE, were used for storing wine made from grapes. Italy is today the world’s largest exporter of wine. It does look like they had an early start!


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