Scientists have revealed the contents of an ancient shipwreck dating back to the era of the Roman Republic and Athenian empire using genetic analysis. The research suggests that the ship’s origin point had most probably been Chios, an island in Greece.
The 2400 year old shipwreck lies 230 feet (70 meters) deep, roughly a half-mile (1 kilometer) off the coast of Chios in the Aegean Sea.
Revealed in early 2006, the cargo of the shipwreck was mainly olive oil flavoured with oregano. Besides this, the other contents included amphoras (two-handled earthenware jars often used by ancient Greeks and Romans).
The amphora that held the oregano-flavored oil was of a style distinct to Chios. That style made up roughly two-thirds of the more than 350 amphoras found on the wreck, suggesting the ship had sunk while outbound from the island, possibly due to strong fluke winds common near there.
The contents were further analyzed to reveal other details as well.
By deploying a robot to the wreck to collect two, the research team was able to obtain DNA samples by scraping the insides of the ceramics.
Many archaeologists specialize in the analysis of amphoras, which were used for shipping wine, oil, spices, grapes, olives, grain, nuts, fish and other commodities. Amphoras in a shipwreck can often reveal the age and nationality of the wreck, and at times they even hold their original contents, shedding light on ancient trade across the Mediterranean.
The research team was able to identify the DNA contents of one amphora as olives and oregano, suggesting it held olive oil mixed with oregano. This came as a surprise, since Chios was well known as a major exporter of fine wines in antiquity, and archeologists had assumed that any cargo from that area would have been wine.
The other amphora the researchers analyzed may indeed have contained wine, although the DNA evidence they found there as yet remains uncertain.
"This is the first time that we’ve taken a jar like this that had no visible remains in it and known for sure what was in it," LiveScience quotes researcher Brendan Foley, a maritime archaeologist.
"The fact that we detected DNA of olives may mean that Chios exported more than wine," Foley said. "Their agricultural production might have been more sophisticated than we’ve suspected."
Besides finding out that the cargo was olive oil flavoured with oregano, such research could provide a wealth of insights concerning the everyday life of ancient seafaring civilizations.
"If our technique works on other containers, we can begin to trace the agricultural production of different regions through time and their trading networks," said Foley. "We can see what crops were grown where and when, and this will give us an entirely new look at the ancient economy," he added. According to Foley, the research will help to give an idea of what the people of the shipwreck were growing, eating and how they prepared and preserved foods.
"Such insights into ancient crops could even yield insights into the climate of that period," Foley said.
The scientists hope to go back and study a few dozen more amphoras from a variety of wrecks next year.