Salad Dressing is Probably Past the ‘Best Before’ Date (ca. 400 BC)

By: The Scribe on Wednesday, November 14, 2007



Remnants of from ancient salad dressing found at the bottom of the Mediterranean is probably well past its due date, though it shares many common characteristics with today’s oregano-based dressings.A 2,400-year-old shipwreck off the coast of the Greek island of Chios in the Aegean sea contained a rather tasty surprise – DNA testing on the insides of some of the amphorae yielded a recipe for Greek salad dressing! The shipwreck currently lies 70 meters deep, and is located about a kilometer away from Chios.

Scientists were able to obtain samples of the ancient dressing after sending several underwater robots down to the shipwreck to collect two of the jars. Amphorae were used by the ancient Greeks and Romans to transport liquids and other commodities – things like wine, oil, spices, grain, or olives – and are shaped like large cones. Since they’re made out of earthenware pottery, they have an incredible lifespan, preserving for hundreds of thousands of years, even underwater!

Studies on amphorae from shipwrecks often help to reveal the country of origin of the ship and how old it was, and it isn’t unusual for the jars to often still contain remains of their original contents – finds like this have helped to dramatically increase the amount of information available on trade in the ancient Mediterranean.

The amphorae from Chios were normally shaped like this, and held all varieties of trade items, from wine, to grain, to oregano-flavored olive oil! The DNA contents of the amphorae from this shipwreck revealed several common yet interesting ingredients: the jars contained olive oil mixed with oregano. This came as a bit of a surprise to archaeologists, since the island the ship had left from was a major exporter of fine wines – it had been assumed that any ship leaving Chios would have held plenty of amphorae full of wine.

While further investigations revealed that another amphora from the ship likely contained wine – which means there was probably plenty aboard – the oregano-flavored oil seems to have been the primary trade item on this vessel, making up at least two-thirds of the 350 amphorae found on the ship.

It’s likely that strong winds developed soon after the ship left port, causing it to capsize without warning. It is fairly common for the area around Chios to develop sudden storms or fluke winds that are exceedingly dangerous for sailing, however since they are unpredictable, sailors couldn’t simply not leave port for sake of potential trouble.

Olive oil in a modern storage jar.

As a result, it turns out that not only did the ancient Greeks like their salad dressing, but the island of Chios was responsible for a more diverse agricultural program than previously assumed. These people certainly knew what they were doing, as well – in the rural areas of modern Greece, the older women are well aware that adding oregano and other spices to oil helps not only to increase the flavor, but also to preserve the life of the oil much longer.

By exporting flavored oil with an intentional longer lifespan, it’s possible that this ancient preservation method accidentally helped to preserve the oil’s DNA for archaeologists to find two thousand years later.

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