Imperial Roman wine estate uncovered

A rural estate in Puglia that once belonged to Roman emperors has been discovered to include substantial vineyard holdings.


Members of the team working on one of the ceramic vats. Photo credit: University of Sheffield

As reported by Science Daily, a team from the University of Sheffield has been making excavations at the ‘vicus’ or village of the Vagnari estate in the valley of the Basentello River just east of the Appennine Mountains.

Last year the team uncovered the corner of a ‘cella vinaria’, a wine fermentation and storage room. Central to the room are a number of amphora-like vessels known as ‘dolla defossa’ which, much like Georgian qvevris still are, were buried up to their necks to help maintain a constant cool temperature for the wine within – essential in the summer heat of southern Italy.

Some of these vessels have been revealed to have a capacity of more than 1,000 litres which points to near industrial levels of wine production, quite unlike the scale of most Roman wineries which were more modest in size.

Alongside the winery, further finds indicate there was a small lead smelting works which turned out items from fishing weights to small squares which could be used to repair tools and containers.

Puglia – in Roman times known as ‘Apulia’ – was incorporated into the Roman Republic in the third century BC. The expansive Vagnari estate itself was acquired by one of the early Roman emperors in the glory days of the first century AD.

Excavations have been on-going at the site since 2000 with the team from Sheffield taking a key role since 2012.

As the university explains on its website, very few imperial landholdings of this sort have ever been properly explored and it is hoped that discoveries such as the winery and evidence of fishing will cast light on how these estates operated and generated wealth for their owners.

As the university’s site explains: “The multidisciplinary research at this site is important to understand the role of a Roman imperial estate in the regional and extra-regional economy of Italy; elite involvement in the exploitation of the environment and control over labour; the contribution of a nucleated imperial property to cultural change in Apulia; and the nature, origins, and social complexity of the population on the estate.”

The team’s director, professor Maureen Carroll, explained that the course of the excavation would now be to, “determine how diverse the estate’s economy was, and how the cultivation of vines and wine-making fitted in to the emperor’s wider agricultural and industrial landscape.”

Wine has been central to southern Italy for well over 2,000 years. The abundance of grape varieties growing wild across the region caused Greek colonists in the 6th and 5th centuries BC to call the area ‘enotria‘ or ‘land of vines’.

Earlier this year further light was shed on the role of wine in the life of the Greco-Italian peoples that inhabited the region before the final Roman victory in 272BC.

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