Archive for June 23rd, 2008

Ancient Greek supertanker yields delicious DNA

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

Two years ago, a diver came across a huge field of 500 amphorae on the seabed, still arranged in the shape of a hull off the southern coast of Cyprus.

The authorities kept the find quiet to protect it from looters and the ship itself along with an estimated 300 other amphorae buried in the sand has yet to be excavated, but an international collaboration of scientists and archaeologists have now examined some of the vessels and found evidence of all kinds of goodies, like herb-infused olive oil and retsina wine.

There is little doubt the first amphora contained the herb-infused olive oil, which was likely used to dress and flavor meals. The scientists suspect the potent antioxidant properties of oregano helped to preserve the mixture over the millennia.

As for the second amphora, its DNA signature matched a plant from the Pistacia genus. That points to either pistachio nuts or mastic (scientific name Pistacia lentiscus).

Foley said the ancient Greeks were known to have shipped huge containers of nuts. One third-century B.C. wreck, in fact, contained jar after jar of them. But since the design of this particular amphora was most associated with wine shipments, mastic-flavored wine is the more likely choice.

This is a major discovery, the first time DNA has been extracted from a shipwreck.

“This (study) opens new possibilities for archaeologists — now perhaps we can figure out what was carried in almost every ’empty’ jar we find in land excavations or shipwrecks,” researcher Brendan Foley of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution told Discovery News.

“Maybe we can even go back to the amphorae, jars and cooking pots previously excavated and now sitting in museum storerooms around the world and ask new questions of each artifact,” he added.

So cool. I hope this starts a run of DNA testing on ancient vessels.

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