In 2019, archaeologists discovered a family mausoleum dated to the 1st century AD in the necropolis of Carmona (ancient Roman Carmo) in Seville (Spain), which contained eight niches, six of them with an urn of ashes each. One of these contained a reddish liquid that, after an archaeochemical study, was identified as white wine, making it the oldest wine preserved in liquid form.

The city of Carmona, known in antiquity as Carmo, is part of the Baetica region, one of the most important provinces of the Roman Empire. During the renovation of a house in this historic city, a collective tomb belonging to the western necropolis of Carmo was discovered. This tomb, dated to the early 1st century AD, contained eight niches, six of which housed cinerary urns with cremated remains and various objects typical of Roman funeral rituals.

What made this discovery exceptional was the urn in niche 8. This urn, a glass ossuary pot with M-shaped handles, was inside an oval lead box with a flat-domed lid. Inside it, five liters of a reddish liquid were found, presumed to be part of the original content along with the cremated bone remains. Given the symbolic importance of wine in the ancient Roman world and its close relationship with funeral rituals, researchers hypothesized that this liquid could be wine.

To confirm the nature of the liquid, several chemical analyses were carried out. Using inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS), researchers were able to determine the chemical elements present in the mineral salts of the wine, such as potassium, calcium, and magnesium, common in ancient wines. Additionally, they used high-performance liquid chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry (HPLC-MS) to identify polyphenols, compounds present in grapes and therefore in wine. The presence of certain polyphenols and the profile of the mineral salts allowed researchers to identify the liquid as white wine.

(a), (b) Funeral chamber. (c) Urn in niche 8. (d) Lead case containing the urn. (e) Reddish liquid contained in the urn.
(a), (b) Funeral chamber. (c) Urn in niche 8. (d) Lead case containing the urn. (e) Reddish liquid contained in the urn. Credit: Daniel Cosano et al.

The exceptional preservation of the wine in liquid form is a testament to the advanced storage and preservation techniques of the Romans, as well as the unique environmental conditions that allowed its conservation for almost 2000 years. In Roman times, preventing the wine from spoiling was one of the greatest challenges faced by winemakers, the researchers explain. However, they managed to extend the wine’s shelf life by using various additives; one of the most used in the Baetica region was gypsum.

Another way to prolong the wine’s shelf life in Roman times was to add cooked musts that contained large amounts of sugars to increase the alcohol content. Another possibility was to add sodium chloride to the wine, possibly to enhance its flavor. Salt is also an effective preservative and stabilizer for wine. The fine wines currently produced in the Jerez denomination of origin are probably the closest to those originally obtained in Roman Baetica.

Previously, the oldest known wine preserved in liquid form was the Speyer bottle, dated to approximately 1700 years. However, this new finding in Carmona surpasses that age, providing a direct and tangible sample of wine production and consumption in ancient Rome.

According to the researchers, the use of wine in Roman funeral rituals is well known and documented. Therefore, once the cremated remains were deposited in it, the urn must have been filled with wine in a kind of libation ritual during the burial ceremony or as part of the funeral rite to help the deceased in their transition to a better world.

And they conclude that the results obtained in this work strongly suggest that the reddish liquid in the ash urn was originally wine that decomposed over time, and that it was about 2,000 years old, making it the oldest wine found to date.


SOURCES

Daniel Cosano, Juan Manuel Román, et al., New archaeochemical insights into Roman wine from Baetica. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, vol.57, September 2024, 104636. doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2024.104636


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