Tag Archives: Sicily

Prehistoric wine discovered in inaccessible caves forces a rethink of ancient Sicilian culture

Sunrise over Sicily. Image credits: Flickr CC 3.0.

Monte Kronio rises 1,300 feet above the geothermally active landscape of southwestern Sicily. Hidden in its bowels is a labyrinthine system of caves, filled with hot sulfuric vapors. At lower levels, these caves average 99 degrees Fahrenheit and 100 percent humidity. Human sweat cannot evaporate and heat stroke can result in less than 20 minutes of exposure to these underground conditions.

Nonetheless, people have been visiting the caves of Monte Kronio since as far back as 8,000 years ago. They’ve left behind vessels from the Copper Age (early sixth to early third millennium B.C.) as well as various sizes of ceramic storage jars, jugs and basins. In the deepest cavities of the mountain these artifacts sometimes lie with human skeletons.

Archaeologists debate what unknown religious practices these artifacts might be evidence of. Did worshipers sacrifice their lives bringing offerings to placate a mysterious deity who puffed gasses inside Monte Kronio? Or did these people bury high-ranking individuals in that special place, close to what was probably considered a source of magical power?

One of the most puzzling of questions around this prehistoric site has been what those vessels contained. What substance was so precious it might mollify a deity or properly accompany dead chiefs and warriors on their trip to the underworld?

Using tiny samples, scraped from these ancient artifacts, my recent analysis came up with a surprising answer: wine. And that discovery has big implications for the story archaeologists tell about the people who lived in this time and place.

Analyzing scraping samples

Sicily is also well known for its wines. The volcanic soils are very rich in nutrients, favoring the development of grapes. Image credits: Neil Weightman / Wikipedia.

In November 2012, a team of expert geographers and speleologists ventured once again into the dangerous underground complex of Monte Kronio. They escorted archaeologists from the Superintendence of Agrigento down more than 300 feet to document artifacts and to take samples. The scientists scraped the inner walls of five ceramic vessels, removing about 100 mg (0.0035 ounces) of powder from each.

I led an international team of scholars, which hoped analyzing this dark brown residue could shed some light on what these Copper Age containers from Monte Kronio originally carried. Our plan was to use cutting-edge chemical techniques to characterize the organic residue.

We decided to use three different approaches. Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR) would be able to tell us the physical and chemical properties of the atoms and molecules present. We turned to scanning electron microscopy with energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (SEM/EDX) and the attenuated total reflectance Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (ATR FT-IR) for the elemental analysis – the chemical characterization of the samples.

We found that four of the five Copper Age large storage jars contained an organic residue. Two contained animal fats and another held plant residues, thanks to what we inferred was a semi-liquid kind of stew partially absorbed by the walls of the jars. But the fourth jar held the greatest surprise: pure grape wine from 5,000 years ago.These analysis methods are destructive: The sample gets used up when we run the tests. Since we had just that precious 100 mg of powder from each vessel, we needed to be extremely careful as we prepared the samples. If we messed up the analysis, we couldn’t just run it all over again.

Presence of wine implies much more

Initially I did not fully grasp the import of such a discovery. It was only when I vetted the scientific literature on alcoholic beverages in prehistory that I realized the Monte Kronio samples represented the oldest wine known so far for Europe and the Mediterranean region. An incredible surprise, considering that the Southern Anatolia and Transcaucasian region were traditionally believed to be the cradle of grape domestication and early viticulture. At the end of 2017, research similar to ours using Neolithic ceramic samples from Georgia pushed back the discovery of trace of pure grape wine even further, to 6,000-5,800 B.C.

This idea of the “oldest wine” conveyed in news headlines captured the public’s attention when we first published our results.

But what the media failed to convey are the tremendous historical implications that such a discovery has for how archaeologists understand Copper Age Sicilian cultures.

From an economic standpoint, the evidence of wine implies that people at this time and place were cultivating grapevines. Viticulture requires specific terrains, climates and irrigation systems. Archaeologists hadn’t, up to this point, included all these agricultural strategies in their theories about settlement patterns in these Copper Age Sicilian communities. It looks like researchers need to more deeply consider ways these people might have transformed the landscapes where they lived.

The discovery of wine from this time period has an even bigger impact on what archaeologists thought we knew about commerce and the trade of goods across the whole Mediterranean at this time. For instance, Sicily completely lacks metal ores. But the discovery of little copper artifacts – things like daggers, chisels and pins had been found at several sites – shows that Sicilians somehow developed metallurgy by the Copper Age.

Sicily is well known for its archaeology. Image via Pixabay.

The traditional explanation has been that Sicily engaged in an embryonic commercial relationship with people in the Aegean, especially with the northwestern regions of the Peloponnese. But that doesn’t really make a lot of sense because the Sicilian communities didn’t have much of anything to offer in exchange for the metals. The lure of wine, though, might have been what brought the Aegeans to Sicily, especially if other settlements hadn’t come this far in viticulture yet.

Ultimately, the discovery of wine remnants near gaseous crevices deep inside Monte Kronio adds more support to the hypothesis that the mountain was a sort of prehistoric sanctuary where purification or oracular practices were carried out, taking advantage of the cleansing and intoxicating features of sulfur.

Wine has been known as a magical substance since its appearances in Homeric tales. As red as blood, it had the unique power to bring euphoria and an altered state of consciousness and perception. Mixed with the incredible physical stress due to the hot and humid environment, it’s easy to imagine the descent into the darkness of Monte Kronio as a transcendent journey toward the gods. The trek likely ended with death for the weak, maybe with the conviction of immortality for the survivors.

The ConversationAnd all of this was written in the grains of 100 milligrams of 6,000-year-old powder.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article. Original author: Davide Tanasi, Assistant Professor, Department of History and Center for Visualization and Applied Spatial Technologies (CVAST), University of South Florida.


Underwater Stonehenge-Like Monolith Found Off the Coast of Sicily

Archaeologists have uncovered an enigmatic monolith deep off the coast of Sicily, Italy. The 15 tonne Stonehenge-like monolith is at least 10,000 year old and may shed new light on ancient Mediterranean civilizations.

Underwater composite photographs taken from divers, showing the discovered monolith and some details.(Lodolo et al/Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports)

Archaeologists were stunned to find the huge monolith, but they explain that there’s no way this is a natural phenomenon/process – these are clearly the remains of man-made activity.

“There are no reasonable known natural processes that may produce these elements,” Zvi Ben-Avraham, from the Department of Earth Sciences at Tel Aviv University, and Emanuele Lodolo, from the National Institute of Oceanography and Experimental Geophysics in Trieste, Italy, wrote in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Now broken into two parts, the monolith has a regular shape and features three holes going right through the middle. But its sheer size and weight make it impressive – sculpting, moving and installing it was a monumental effort for the time.

“The monolith found, made of a single, large block, required a cutting, extraction, transportation and installation, which undoubtedly reveals important technical skills and great engineering. The belief that our ancestors lacked the knowledge, skill and technology to exploit marine resources or make sea crossings, must be progressively abandoned.” This shows just how motivated and capable humans were 10,000 years ago. “The recent findings of submerged archaeology have definitively removed the idea of ‘technological primitivism’ often attributed to hunter-gatherers coastal settlers.”

But how did this remarkable monument get to the bottom of the sea?

Well, 10,000 years ago, the coasts of Italy looked significantly different than they do today. The monolith was found in what was once an island in the Sicilian Channel. As the Ice Age reached its end, temperatures rose and so did sea levels. The entire Mediterranean basin changed its appearance.

“The Sicilian Channel is one of the shallow shelves of the central Mediterranean region where the consequences of changing sea-level were most dramatic and intense,” the researchers wrote.

Slowly but surely, parts of the island were flooded, until the entire island became submerged.

“The gradual increase of the sea level caused the flooding of most of the peninsula, with the exception of some morphological highs that, until at least the Early Holocene, formed an archipelago of several islands separated by stretches of extremely shallow sea,” the researchers said.

It’s not clear if the monolith had any structure or if it was parte of a larger complex. It seems quite likely that even more important discoveries await discovery at the bottom of the sea.

“Almost everything that we do know about prehistoric cultures derives from settlements that are now on land. On the contrary, an extensive archaeological record of early settlings lies on the sea-floor of our continental shelves,” Lodolo said. “If we want to trace the origins of civilization in the Mediterranean region, we must focus on the now-submerged shelf areas,” he added.


Mt. Etna gushing plume from an eruption in 2001, as seen from an image captured in space by the International Space Station. (c) NASA

Mt. Etna erupts in spectacular display of lights [VIDEO]

Mt. Etna gushing plume from an eruption in 2001, as seen from an image captured in space by the International Space Station. (c) NASA

Mt. Etna gushing plume from an eruption in 2001, as seen from an image captured in space by the International Space Station. (c) NASA

The famous volcano in Sicily has been subjected to a number of eruption in this highly active past year. This weekend however, residents of nearby towns on Sicily were treated to a spectacular show of tectonic fireworks as Europe’s most active volcano, Mt Etna, erupted in glorious fashion. Get just a hint of the real display at large in the video below.

Etna has experienced a number of eruptive episodes over the last 2 weeks or paroxysms as they are called by Dr. Boris Behncke. Some have been less impressive, while others have been extremely powerful, blasting lava and ash hundreds of meters into the air.

The last episode, the eight this year, that started this weekend spilled fire fountains upwards of 500 meters (half a kilometers) and a large lava flow that which is still riveting the flanks of the volcano. There are no reports of injuries or damage to property although past lava flows have often threatened the villages surrounding the crater.