Ancient grape seeds unearthed in Chianti

12th August, 2014 by Lauren Eads

US archaeologists have discovered what could be the ancestor of Chianti’s famous wine style in the form of 500 waterlogged grape seeds.

Clockwise from top: Florida State University Department of Classics alumni Nat Coombes, Tyler Haynes and Ellie Margadant; Nancy de Grummond, the M. Lynette Thompson Professor of Classics at Florida State; and Cheryl Sowder, professor of art history at Jacksonville University.

Clockwise from top: Florida State University Classics alumni Nat Coombes, Tyler Haynes and Ellie Margadant, Nancy de Grummond, professor of classics at Florida State and Cheryl Sowder, professor of art history at Jacksonville University.

Dating back to the third century BC, the grape seeds were discovered at the bottom of a 105-foot well in Cetamura, an ancient hilltop near Gaiole in Chianti, by a team of US scientists who have been excavating the site for the last four years.

The grape seeds were found perfectly preserved in at least three levels of the well which dates back to the Etruscan and Roman eras in Tuscany, with scientists hopeful the seeds can provide key insights into the history of viticulture in the region.

Nancy de Grummond, professor of classics at Florida State and leader of the excavation said the seeds could provide a “key to the history of wine in ancient Tuscany” from the third century BCE to the first century CE, adding their their “excellent preservation” would allow for both DNA testing and carbon dating.

Many of the seeds have already been analysed at the University of Naples Federico II using a program initially designed for tomato seeds.

So far, three types have been identified, with more likely to emerge from further analysis, particularly of the seeds found in Etruscan levels of the well this year.

Other items uncovered at the site included 14 Roman and Etruscan bronze vessels, one of which was used as a “wine bucket”, and an enormous amount of rare waterlogged wood from both Roman and Etruscan times.

“One of the Etruscan vessels, actually a wine bucket, is finely tooled and decorated with figurines of the marine monster Skylla,” de Grummond said.

The grape seeds were typically found inside the bronze vessels which de Grummond said could indicate ritual activity, while the “remarkable” amounts of well-preserved wood found at the bottom of the well also were most likely ritual offerings.

Bronze vessels from Nancy de Grummond's four-year excavation of an Etruscan well at the ancient Italian settlement of Cetamura del Chianti.

Bronze vessels from Nancy de Grummond’s four-year excavation of an Etruscan well at the ancient Italian settlement of Cetamura del Chianti.

De Grummond added: “This rich assemblage of materials in bronze, silver, lead and iron, along with the abundant ceramics and remarkable evidence of organic remains, create an unparalleled opportunity for the study of culture, religion and daily life in Chianti and the surrounding region,” she said of the well excavation that began in 2011, which is part of a larger dig encompassing the entire Cetamura settlement.”

The actual excavation of the well, an engineering feat in its own right according to de Grummond, was carried out by the Italian archaeological firm Ichnos, directed by Francesco Cini of Montelupo Fiorentino.

De Grummond is now is planning an exhibition of the new discoveries from the well.

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