June 4, 2013 11:57 am
French winemakers first learned the trade from the Etruscans, an ancient Italian civilization, kicking off domestic production around 525 B.C., according to new research by a team of scientists lead by Patrick McGovern. Archaeologists have long thought that the Etruscans brought wine and winemaking to southern France. But in their new study, McGovern and his team firmed up that assumption. They tested the residue found at the bottom of ancient Etruscan amphoras collected from a site in southern France. At the time, amphoras were used as shipping containers, carrying wine and olive oil and other products around the Mediterranean.
Chemical analyses of ancient organic compounds absorbed into the pottery fabrics of imported Etruscan amphoras (ca. 500–475 B.C.) and into a limestone pressing platform (ca. 425–400 B.C.) at the ancient coastal port site of Lattara in southern France provide the earliest biomolecular archaeological evidence for grape wine and viniculture from this country, which is crucial to the later history of wine in Europe and the rest of the world.
But the history of winemaking stretches back much, much further. The civilizations of the ancient Near East had been producing wine since at least as early as the Neolithic era, from around 10,000 to 2,000 B.C. In archaeology, understanding when and how ancient cultures met and collaborated is a difficult challenge. But the flow of wine, say the scientists in their study, can be used to track these connections.
The wine trade was one of the principal incentives for the Canaanites and Phoenicians, followed by the Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans, to expand their inﬂuence in the Mediterranean Sea. Where wine went, so other cultural elements eventually followed. Technologies of all kinds and new social and religious customs took hold in regions where another fermented beverage made from different natural products had long held sway.
According to the authors, the rise of wine making in southern France suggests not just trade of goods between the ancient Celtic French and the Etruscans, but the flow of ideas and technology.
Similarly to the transfer of winemaking by the Canaanites to the Egyptian Nile Delta millennia earlier, the native Celts at Lattara would have needed the expertise and knowledge of the Etruscans to plant their own vineyards and begin making wine.
Though the French were latecomers to the winemaking industry they’ve quickly made up for lost time. France is now the world’s largest producer of wine, account for 16% of world production.
If you wanted a taste of the old world, say the authors in their study, the closest modern approximation of the ancient wines would be a nice Greek retsina—a wine that bears the taste of pine resin, a material that was used to seal the amphoras during shipping.
More from Smithsonian.com:
May 30, 2013 2:02 pm
To the ancient Egyptians, iron was known as the “metal of heaven,” says the University College London. “In the hieroglyphic language of the ancient Egyptians it was pronounced ba-en-pet, meaning either stone or metal of Heaven.” For thousands of years before they learned to smelt iron ore, Egyptians were crafting beads and trinkets from it, harvesting the metal from fallen meteorites. The rarity of the metal gave it a special place in Egyptian society, says Nature: “Iron was very strongly associated with royalty and power.”
For the past century, researchers have been locked in debate over whether the iron in a set of 5,000 year-old beads, dating back to ancient Egypt, came from a meteorite or was crafted as the byproduct of accidental smelting. A new study, says Nature, has confirmed that the iron beads hail from the heavens. The beads contain high concentrations of nickel and show a distinct crystal structure known as a Widmanstätten pattern, says New Scientist, both evidence that the iron came from a meteor.
According to Cardiff University’s Paul Nicholson in his 2000 book, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, “the availability of iron on anything but a fortuitous or sporadic scale had to await the development of iron smelting.”
The relatively late adoption of this technology owes more to the complexitities of the processes than to a lack of supplies, since iron ores are actually abundant world-wide. Iron production requires temperatures of around 1,100—1,150 °C.
Iron smelting didn’t appear in Egypt until the 6th century B.C., 2700 years after the estimated date of the iron beads.
More from Smithsonian.com:
May 30, 2013 11:30 am
Russian researchers headed by well-known mammoth-hunter Semyon Grigoriev have just found something amazing in the ice on one of Siberia’s Lyakhovsky Islands—a frozen woolly mammoth that still had liquid blood.
According to Agence France-Press, the mammoth is thought to have been around 60 years old when she died and was buried by ice between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago.
Digging down through the ice, says Wired UK, the researchers found the preserved mammoth in temperatures around 14 Fahrenheit—far below freezing. Poking at ice cavities found alongside the mammoth’s frozen remains with an ice pick caused liquid blood to flow.
It can be assumed that the blood of mammoths had some cryo-protective properties,” Grigoriev said. “The blood is very dark, it was found in ice cavities below the belly and when we broke these cavities with a pick, the blood came running out.
Aside from flowing blood, the team also found mammoth muscle with the “natural red color of fresh meat,” says a release from the North-Eastern Federal University of Yakutsk.
Grigoriev told the AFP that the find is “the most astonishing case in my entire life.” Grigoriev is well-known among mammoth hunters for his long-standing quest to clone one of the long-extinct creatures. Back in September Grigoriev made headlines when his discovery of a mammoth that was thought to still have bone marrow raised the debate over mammoth cloning. The excitement over that find, says Wired UK, “soon dissipated when it became clear that a translation error had made the discovery seem more impressive than it was.”
According to the AFP, Grigoriev is hoping to find still-living mammoth cells, and a chance to reinvigorate his dream of cloning a furry friend. For Scientific American, Kate Wong has a slightly more skeptical outlook:
From the sound of things, these remains may well revolutionize scientists’ understanding of mammoth physiology, which would be thrilling indeed. As for resurrecting this long-vanished creature, well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. As my colleagues and I argue in the June issue of Scientific American, de-extinction is a bad idea.
More from Smithsonian.com:
May 28, 2013 2:30 pm
On a site near Buck Lake, a small community southwest of the Canadian city of Edmonton, a retired Czechoslovakian couple, Anton and Maria Chobot, worked for decades to unveil the history of one of North America’s first human civilizations. The Chobots left their home during the ongoing Hungarian Revolution and settled half way across the world. From there, says Randy Boswell for Postmedia News, the couple started excavating the land near their cottage along Buck Lake.
The Soviet Bloc was keenly interested in the Middle East, so I traveled there a lot, especially to Syria. While there, I became interested in archaeology, taught myself how to excavate correctly, and did some excavations at the ancient site of Ugarit, north of Beirut on the Mediterranean, which was good training for what I would unexpectedly come across here in Canada.
What they came across was astounding. According to the 2006 book: “In the Chobots’ basement were a great many boxes, maybe more than a hundred, filled with flint tools and flakes,” relics of one of North America’s first humans—the Clovis people. The Chobots had found arrowheads, knives and even simple tools thought to be from humans that had preceded the Clovis.
As one of the best preserved sites of Clovis artifacts, the Chobots’ archaeological dig is now at the center of a scientific controversy, says Boswell. Research teams across the world are trying to figure out what killed off the Clovis, and ongoing research at the Chobot site could help them answer that question.
Roughly 14,500 years ago the world started to warm, throwing off the shackles of the Ice Age and creeping into the temperate conditions that have supported much of human history. The warming encouraged the entry of some of the first humans into North America roughly 13,000 years ago, including the Clovis people.
A few thousand years into this climatic change the warming suddenly stopped. The conditions across much of the Northern Hemisphere shot back to glacial conditions in just a thousand years. In Venezuela, says NOAA, the temperature dropped 5.5 degrees. Across the Northern Hemisphere, dry conditions set in.
Scientists aren’t really sure what caused the dramatic cooling, an event known as the Younger Dryas. Most blame the cooling on a change in ocean circulation patterns and the melting of the Arctic, but some favor another trigger—an asteroid. Whatever the cause, the effects of the Younger Dryas were deadly: The Clovis people, along with the mammoths and giant bisons with which they shared the land, were wiped out.
In a new study, scientists report that tiny spherules, thought to have been produced when a massive asteroid exploded over the Canadian sky, have been dug up at the Chobot site. The find is reinvigorating the debate over the cause of the Younger Dryas, says Boswell for Postmedia News.
“Sadly,” says Boswell, the new study “was published just three days before Anton Chobot died Friday at age 92.”
More from Smithsonian.com:
May 28, 2013 12:07 pm
One hundred and seventeen years ago, twin sisters Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson, both highly accomplished academics, were traveling through Cairo. From a bookseller in town, says the New Yorker, the pair purchased a small set of ancient Hebrew texts. One of the writings turned out to be an original copy of the proverbs of Ben Sira.
But that find was just a clue to the trove of Hebrew documents that Cairo was keeping. Seeing the documents upon Lewis and Gibson’s return to England, Solomon Schechter, another scholar at Cambridge, traveled to Cairo. Schechter, says the New Yorker,
[E]ventually ma[de] his way to the Ben Ezra synagogue—the site, according to legend, where baby Moses had been found in the reeds. Deep within the building, in a hidden repository called a genizah (from the Hebrew word ganaz, meaning to hide or set aside), Schechter uncovered more than seventeen hundred Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts and ephemera.
According to Jewish traditions, any writings that bear a reference to God must be buried. Often, a pile of works is collected and then buried together. That was the intention for the writings found near Cairo, but for some reason the documents were just never interred.
The Jews of Fostat, though, preserved not only sacred texts but just about everything they ever wrote down. It’s not precisely clear why, but Outhwaite told me that medieval Jews hardly wrote anything at all—whether personal letters or shopping lists—without referring to God. (Addressing a man might involve blessing him with one of God’s names; an enemy might be cursed with an invocation of God’s malice.)
Because of this, the collection of documents discovered in the Cairo genizah was a glimpse into Jewish life from the ninth to 19th centuries.
We see what people bought and ordered, and what got lost in shipments between Alexandria and the Italian ports. We learn what clothes they wore: silks and textiles for the middle classes, from all over the known world. The Genizah includes prenuptial agreements and marriage deeds from the eleventh century listing the full inventory of a woman’s trousseau. It also contains the oldest-known Jewish engagement deed, from 1119, which was invented to grant a woman (and her dowry) legal protection as the time period between betrothal and marriage changed in medieval Egypt.
“In some ways,” says the Jewish Daily Forward, “the contents of the Cairo Genizah are more important than the Dead Sea Scrolls, several scholars believe. While the Dead Sea scrolls were the religious literature of a small sect that lived in the desert for a few years, the Cairo Genizah told the story of the day-to-day details of a millennium of Jewish life, from the mundane to the magnificent.”
But many of the hundreds of thousands of texts that make up to collection are just fragments, worn and weathered with time. “[B]ecause a genizah is essentially a garbage can,” says the New York Times, “most of the manuscripts were tattered and torn; Solomon Schechter, one of the earliest to study the collection, called it “a battlefield of books.”
Efforts have been made to piece the fragments back together, but it is a slow, painstaking affair. More than a decade of work has already gone in to digitizing the fragments, and now a massive computing project is giving the reconstruction efforts a boost. In Tel Aviv University, says the Times, “more than 100 linked computers… are analyzing 500 visual cues for each of 157,514 fragments, to check a total of 12,405,251,341 possible pairings.”
Work so far using the computers, says the Jewish Daily Forward, has been able to do “more in a few months than in 110 years of conventional scholarship.” According to the Times, the computerized reconstruction effort should be done within a month. More than just offering a view into Jewish history, the fully reconstructed genizah would tell a new side of the tale of the Middle East, one captured by ordinary people living in a multicultural community in the mouth of the Nile.
More from Smithsonian.com:
The Dead Sea Scrolls Just Went Digital