Archive for the ‘Ancient Mediterranean’ Category

Happy Hour Came Early in Ancient France

By: The Scribe on June, 2013

french wine 2It’s no secret that the French love their wine… but when did they begin this devotion-esque relationship with the vine? Recent chemical analysis of an ancient wine press from southern France has revealed that wine was produced quite a bit earlier than previously believed.

A team from the University of Pennsylvania, led by biomolecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern, investigated artefacts from the ancient French coastal town of Lattara. Lattara is one of the best-preserved Iron Age sites in the country—and using modern scientific technology (mass spectrometry, infrared spectroscopy), researchers were able to analyse the residue left behind in ancient Etruscan and Massaliote amphorae.

The amphorae were discovered in the town’s merchant quarters—not a surprise, considering that around 600 B.C., the Etruscans were trading wine across the coastal French Mediterranean… while the Greeks (who also loved themselves a serving of wine or six) had an established colony at what is present-day Marseilles, France (then called Massalia).

The analysis of the amphorae confirmed that they’d once held wine, due to the presence of 2,500-year-old tartaric acid (this acid is naturally occurring in grapes). There were also chemical “fingerprints” of pine resin, rosemary, and basil—things thought to have either been added for flavoring, preservation during transport, or perhaps to boost medicinal properties.

MICHEL PY, L'UNITÉ DE FOUILLES ET DE RECHERCHES ARCHÉOLOGIQUES DE LATTESNot too far from where the amphorae were found, archaeologists also found a limestone pressing platform with tartaric acid residue, as well as grape skins and seeds scattered around. According to McGovern, “the combination of botanical and chemical evidence makes a pretty tight argument” for wine production at the southern French town of Lattara during the 5th-century.

A full study on these findings has just been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Secret Hues of Phoenician Art

By: The Scribe on May, 2013

phoenician plaqueThree thousand years ago, the Phoenicians created intricately carved ivory sculptures, featuring various figures and symbols that have helped add to our knowledge of these ancient sea-faring people.

The Phoenicians were Semitic traders, and perhaps best known for inventing an alphabet that was later adopted by the Greeks… and eventually, by us! The Phoenicians were also known for their control of purple-dye pigment across the Mediterranean during 1500-300 B.C… and evidently their eye for color extended beyond brightly hued robes.

Despite being displayed in museums around the world for centuries, a number of Phoenician carvings examined by researchers in France and Germany have shown traces of metal that are invisible to the naked eye. These 8th-century B.C. sculptures have metal traces that were often used in colored pigment in antiquity—including the Egyptians’ copper-based blue, and iron-based hematite.

These metals aren’t naturally found in ivory or in the soil surrounding the once-buried ivory carvings, and have helped to confirm what some scholars have long suspected: the Phoenicians painted their carvings with bright, gaudy colors.

phoenician ivory colorAnd the sculptures that weren’t brightly colored? Those were gilded.

“Knowledge of an object’s original appearance can help us understand why it was so visually powerful to ancient viewers,” says Benjamin Porter, an archaeologists at the University of California (Berkeley). Looking at the Phoenician carvings this way may help to further the examination of ancient sculptures from other cultures.

Who knows—we may soon learn that the ancient world was far more colorful than we’ve previously believed!

Gold Thracian Treasure Unearthed in Bulgaria

By: The Scribe on December, 2012

Over two thousand years ago, the Thracians thrived near the mouth of the Danube River… but who wouldn’t, if they lived near one of the largest ancient supplies of gold? Ruled by a warrior aristocracy, the Thracians had an excellent trade relationship with their neighbors, people like the Scythians (north) and the Greeks (south), and we’re able to see this in the art they created.

And what art it is! American archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert has said that “the styles that have been found in Thracian art and Thracian gold represent a mix of Scythian, Greek, and Macedonian cultures, and of course Thracian culture itself… [t]here are sites on the Bulgarian coast that are literally thousands of years older than any other culture that used gold in a ritual fashion.”

We see this history of incredible gold metallurgy reflected in a discovery of a 2,400-year-old treasure in a Thracian tomb in Sveshtari, Bulgaria! The tomb is the biggest out of 150 known tombs from an ancient Thracian tribe named the Getae.

The image here shows a golden horse head, which would have been an ornament from one end of a long-disintegrated iron horse bit—and alongside it to the right is a ring or brooch with intricate design work. Below are tiny gold busts of a woman that are thought to have decorated a piece or pieces of clothing. Other items like rings and threads of gold—likely part of a gold cloth that wrapped these items—were also found among the hoard.

“You’re looking at workmanship made for the elite… it’s very fine and the motifs reflect all sorts of different influences”, said Hiebert. And when asked about the tombs in general—since other nearby ancient gold-filled tombs were looted in ancient times—he mentioned that “there are literally hundreds of tombs, and they’re all subterranean. They were purposely built to try and avoid looting; they were covered up, and all the decoration is on the interior.”

Initial speculation is that these items were part of a ritual burial, and the archaeological team which uncovered the treasure says they expect to find a large burial ground nearby during the course of their work.

(Photo credit: Emil Iordanov, BGNES/Reuters)

Xebec You Can’t Sail Just One…

By: The Scribe on May, 2012

Model of Arabian-built xebec.If you were a trader along the Mediterranean coast between the 16th and 19th centuries, your ship of choice just might have been a long sailing vessel commonly known as a xebec. Built specifically to navigate the waters and coastline of the Mediterranean Sea, xebecs were known for their ability to reach high speeds and their manoeuvrability. This was beneficial for two reasons: Faster merchandise transportation and, for the corsairs who favored the xebec design and speed, an ability to outpace victims or enemies.

Early xebec ships were outfitted with just two masts, but as the design progressed, xebecs became more easily recognized by their standard three-mast structure. The ships were long, designed for speed, with an overhanging, long bowsprit.

The types of sails used depended on the period of use. While traditionally the ships used lateen sails, later xebec designs included square sails on the foremast and lateen sails on the other, also known as a polacre-xebec.

As for the Mediterranean corsairs, they made their own adjustments to the ships, to better outfit them for plundering ships and seizing merchandise from other xebecs! Instead of relying simply on sails, these xebecs were outfitted with oars or sweeps, allowing the ships to come alongside other vessels in calm waters. The corsair xebecs, regardless of their narrow floor plan, would also carry 300-400 men, as well as nearly 30 guns in a range of sizes.


Though in early days they were referred to as a “throwback” to galley ships, xebecs could certainly hold their own, and lasted for several centuries as the ship of choice for traders and plundering corsairs alike!

Next page