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Scientists have discovered the world’s oldest wine! Just one little twist—it comes with a side of ancient bones

Scientists have discovered the world’s oldest wine! Just one little twist—it comes with a side of ancient bones
When it comes to wines, we all know that the older the bottle, the finer (and pricier!) the taste. So how about savouring a two-millennia-old white wine? The only catch: it’s been chilling with a dead man’s bones all this time.

In a groundbreaking archaeological discovery, a 2,000-year-old white wine, believed to have originated from the historic region of Andalusia, has emerged as the oldest wine ever found.
Preservation through time: Discovering the world’s oldest wine
In 2019, archaeologists unearthed a Roman tomb in Spain’s Carmona, where Hispana, Senicio and four others were laid to rest. Among the intriguing burial customs discovered, one involved submerging a man's bones in a liquid preserved within a glass funerary urn. Remarkably, this liquid, now tinted with a reddish hue, has persisted since the first century AD.

A breakthrough came when a team from the University of Cordoba’s Department of Organic Chemistry, working alongside the City of Carmona, identified this liquid as the oldest wine known to mankind!

The fact that the liquid remained preserved within a funerary urn after two millennia even caught the researchers by surprise. The tomb’s pristine condition, having remained completely sealed and intact, played a crucial role in maintaining the wine’s original state. It effectively shielded the liquid from potential threats like flooding, internal leaks, or condensation processes.

This remarkable find surpasses the previously oldest known wine, the Speyer wine bottle from the fourth century AD. Discovered in 1867, it is now housed in the Historical Museum of Pfalz, Germany.
Decoding antiquity: Testing ancient wine with modern chemistry
Confirming that the reddish liquid from the ancient tomb was indeed wine, rather than a mere residue of its former self, presented a formidable challenge for the research team. To overcome their doubts, they conducted a rigorous series of chemical tests at the Central Research Support Service (SCAI) of the University of Cordoba (UCO).

The team meticulously analysed the liquid’s pH, checked for organic matter, examined mineral salts, and identified specific chemical compounds potentially linked to the urn’s glass or the bones within. These results were then compared with modern wines from Montilla-Moriles, Jerez and Sanlúcar, leading to the initial evidence that the liquid was indeed genuine wine.

The crucial clue came from polyphenols—biomarkers inherent in all wines. Utilising advanced techniques capable of detecting these compounds in minuscule amounts, the researchers identified seven specific polyphenols that are also present in contemporary wines from Montilla-Moriles, Jerez and Sanlúcar, cementing the liquid’s identity as wine.

The absence of syringic acid, a type of polyphenol, indicated the wine was white. This absence aligns with historical, archaeological and iconographic records. However, the researchers noted that syringic acid’s possible degradation over centuries could also explain its absence.

Determining the wine’s origin proved to be the toughest part, due to the lack of comparable samples from the same era. However, the mineral salts found in the ancient liquid were similar to those in white wines currently produced in the region, specifically aligning with the wines from the Montilla-Moriles area in what was once the province of Betis.
Wine and funerals go way back, apparently
The man's immersion in wine within the Carmona tomb reflects more than mere chance. In ancient Rome, wine was strictly a man's beverage, barring women from its consumption. This stark gender division is underscored by the presence of two glass urns in the tomb, each highlighting distinct funerary customs.

While the male skeleton was found immersed in wine alongside artefacts like a gold ring and cremated bone fragments from his funeral pyre, the urn holding the female remains contained no wine. Instead, it safeguarded three amber jewels, a patchouli-scented perfume bottle, and remnants of silk fabrics, hinting at the woman's personal adornments and social standing.

The wine, rings, perfume and other items constitute a funerary trousseau designed to accompany the departed into the afterlife. In ancient Roman culture, death held profound significance, prompting individuals to prepare for their eternal journey in ways that ensured remembrance and continued existence in memory.

Nearly two millennia later, Hispana, Senicio and their fellow tomb occupants have not only been rediscovered, but have also illuminated ancient Roman funerary practices. Their tomb has revealed invaluable insights into rituals long obscured by time, while definitively identifying the liquid in the glass urn as the world's oldest known wine.

These findings are detailed in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports and can be accessed here.


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