Signs of red wine, millet beer, and possibly the fermented honey drink, mead, have all been found in pottery vessels from the early Celts living in France around 500 BC.
The finds come from a study of organic residues within cups, jars and jugs found at a hill fort site at Vix-Mont Lassois in Burgundy. It’s like getting a peek inside their drinks cabinet, says Cynthianne Spiteri of the University of Tübingen in Germany. “Once you apply these techniques they tell a story.”
Historical writers such as the ancient Greek, Herodotus, have described the Celts’ fondness for alcohol. “This is the first time we actually see it using scientific methods,” says Spiteri.
Vix-Mont Lassois was an important settlement of the early iron age, which seems to have had links with the Greek trading empire, perhaps through the Greek colony at what is now Marseille, on the south coast of France.
Spiteri’s team took microscopic samples from broken shards of 99 drinking and storage vessels kept at the Museum of the Pays Châtillonnais-Trésor de Vix. Sixteen of the vessels were Greek in style. The team cleaned the surface of the fragments, then drilled into them and collected the powder.
Many of the chemical constituents of the vessels’ contents would have broken down in the intervening millennia, but there were remaining traces of some more stable compounds, such as lipids.
Some of the compounds were from grape skins, suggesting red wine, mostly in the Greek vessels. As there is no evidence of wine making in this region at the time, “it would have to be an import”, says Spiteri.
But the Celts did brew their own beer, and other vessels contained the chemical fingerprint of the grain millet, as well as compounds called hopanoids that are found in fermentation bacteria.
Some vessels had traces of beeswax, which would have been present in trace amounts in honey or mead. The containers could have been used to store beeswax itself, for use as a sealant, but the fact it was found in large jars with high and narrow mouths, as well as some of the cups, points to a liquid, says Patrick McGovern of the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, who was not involved in the work. “Once honey is diluted, native yeast in the honey become active and will readily ferment the honey to mead.”
Some of the vessels were also used to store olive oil, and birch bark tar, which was used as a glue.
Journal reference: PLOS ONE, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0218001
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