Greek influence on early Celtic wine drinking examined

A study of a Celtic site in modern Burgundy has examined the extent to which Greek culture influenced local wine drinking and feasting rituals.

Vix, Mont Lassois

A new study by a Franco-German team has examined 99 pieces of both imported Greek (‘Attic’) and locally made pottery from the 7th to 5th centuries BC at the site of Vix-Mont Lassois near Châtillon-sur-Seine in northern Burgundy; specifically from the plateau of the hill where the upper classes of the local Celtic culture lived and feasted but also areas where craftspeople lived and worked.

Trace chemical analysis revealed the presence of tartrates and resin – indicating a high likelihood of wine – as well as plant oil (much of it from from olives) and beeswax, which may have been from honey made into mead or used as a flavouring in drinks as well as a foodstuff and possibly even as a way of sealing vessels as well.

There was also evidence that beer, “possibly from barley”, was being drunk by the Celtic nobility at the site.

As the authors concluded in their report: ‘The Mediterranean feasting vessels on the plateau were also used for the consumption of beer possibly made from barley and not limited to grape wine.”

As the report continued, the finding of alcohol in the vessels, “underlines the importance of alcoholic beverages in Early Celtic society. Drinking on the plateau most probably also included the consumption of grape wine from Mediterranean feasting vessels, which would indicate the appropriation of Mediterranean feasting practices to some extent and its limitation to a specific group of people within this society.”

Wine drinking therefore was done by the elite, and “conspicuous consumption” of wine was a status symbol within the tribal group in which wine, as an expensive import, had a special relevance.

On the other hand, pottery showing traces of wine were also found in areas of the site known as Champ Fossé and Les Renards which were connected with the more ‘working class’ elements of the society.

It could be that wine jars were simply stored in these areas to be taken up to the elites at banquets but the researchers also postulated that wine was being drunk by all strata of society.

If this is the case, it was argued, “it is the act and place of consumption, not wine as a substance, that might have influenced the formation and identification of social groups, and their status within local society.”

The presence of imported pottery, in the shape of kylix (dish-like Greek drinking vessels), krater (larger vessels for preparing and presenting wine) and amphorae (the classic ancient vessel used for transportation and storage) as well as the lack of any evidence of local viticulture suggests that all wine was being imported at this stage.

Fine Attic pottery was likely highly prized and seems to have been used a lot but where kraters and amphorae largely retained their original function, the kylix seem to have been used to drink various beverages and in this new function acquired new “dynamics of intercultural encounter”.

Furthermore, imported pottery seems to have had an effect on locally made pottery styles as well for the storage, preparation and consumption of various food and drink.

When speaking of the development of wine drinking and viticulture in ancient France much of the credit is automatically given to the Romans but it has long been known that earlier Greek colonies in southern France and Etruscan influence from over the Alps had introduced Celtic tribes in what are now France, Switzerland and Austria to wine drinking several centuries before.

Furthermore, back in 2015 a Greek wine jug from the 5th century BC was found at a princely burial site in the Aube region of southern Champagne, the furthest point north that evidence of Greek culture has so far been discovered.

The full study can be read, here.

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