Bronze Age olive oil: NMR in old Italy

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  • Published: Jun 15, 2018
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: NMR Knowledge Base
thumbnail image: Bronze Age olive oil: NMR in old Italy

Bronzed Italians

Old crock reveals ancient Italian secret. Courtesy: Regione Sicilia - Polo Regionale di Siracusa per i siti e musei archeologici Museo Paolo Orsi

Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), and other techniques have been used to analyse an ancient pottery. The data suggest that "Italians" were using olive oil at least 700 hundred years earlier than previously thought, in the early Bronze Age.

Olive oil has underpinned much of Italian cuisine for centuries, thousands of years even. Now, a new chemical analysis of a peculiarly shaped and rather old piece of pottery suggests that what many refer to as "liquid gold" may well have been produced in the part of the world we know as Sicily for several hundred years longer than previous estimates by anthropologists.

Peculiar jars

Researchers at the University of South Florida led by historian Davide Tanasi undertook an analysis of the large jar pictured, to identify what its contents might have been. The jar was unearthed in the 1990s by Giuseppe Voza during the excavations at the site of Castelluccio, Sicily. Astonishingly, conservators at the Archaeological Museum of Siracusa restored and reassembled 400 ceramic fragments, resulting in the metre-long, ovoid container adorned with rope bands and three vertical handles on each side. Archaeologists at the Sicilian site also found two fragmented basins with an internal septum, indicating it was used to keep multiple substances together, but separate, along with a large terracotta cooking plate.

“The shape of this storage container and the nearby septum was like nothing else Voza found at the site in Castelluccio,” explains Tanasi. "It had the signature of Sicilian tableware dated to the end of the 3rd and beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE." That dates the crockery to the Early Bronze Age. "We wanted to learn how it was used, so we conducted chemical analysis on organic residues found inside," he adds.

NMR lubricates archaeology

In the study published in the journal Analytical Methods, Tanasi and his colleagues tested all three of the artefacts using GC-MS and 1H-1H two dimensional (2D) total correlation spectroscopy (TOCSY) and found them to contain organic residues with traces of oleic and linoleic acids. These fatty acid molecules are the tell-tale signatures of olive oil. "The results obtained with the three samples from Castelluccio become the first chemical evidence of the oldest olive oil in Italian prehistory, pushing back the hands of the clock for the systematic olive oil production by at least 700 years," explains Tanasi. The only previously known identification of the chemical signatures of olive oil are from storage jars discovered in southern Italy in Cosenza and Lecce are believed to be from the 12th and 11th century BCE (Copper Age).

The team is not only enthusiastic about the archaeology but also about the techniques they used in their studies. "Besides the important historical and archaeological implications that this discovery has for the interpretation of the function of Hut 8 and its role in the ancient prehistoric community of Castelluccio, which will be the subject of another specific work, this research has once again confirmed that 1D 1H NMR and 1H-1H 2D TOCSY is a viable approach to analyzing prehistoric artefacts."

Related Links

Anal Method 2018, online: "1H NMR, 1H-1H 2D TOCSY and GC-MS analyses for the identification of olive oil on Early Bronze Age pottery from Castelluccio (Noto, Italy)"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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