An archaeological project has challenged assumptions that the Early Iron Age wine trade was simply a coastal activity. Through analysis of ancient wine containers found in Central Europe, an EU-funded researcher has asserted that early European trade was more complex than previously thought.
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“The AGAME project sought to investigate the first organised interactions between Continental European (‘Celtic’) cultures and Mediterranean (Greek, Etruscan and pre-Roman italic) cultures,” explains project coordinator Federica Sacchetti from Aix-Marseille University, France. “We know that this happened during the Early Iron Age (800-400 BC), thanks to the discovery of imported Mediterranean ceramics and bronzes north of the Alps that were linked to Oriental and Mediterranean ceremonial wine rituals.”
Amphorae, containers used for transporting wine but also oil, meat, fish and other perishable organic materials, provide tangible traces of the ancient movement of goods and peoples. Their existence in Central Europe however has never been examined to the same extent as those found in the Mediterranean, even though they date to a time when extensive long-distance exchanges were developing throughout Europe.
On the wine trail
Sacchetti, funded by a Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship, sought to fill this knowledge gap. Through travel, teamwork and painstaking research, a key moment in the development of European trade has been revealed. “We can now identify long distance structured exchanges between the Mediterranean and the Central Europe during the Early Iron Age,” she says. “This historical phenomenon contributed to the creation of Europe as we know it.”
By comparing Greek amphorae found in Central Europe with those found in the Mediterranean area, Sacchetti was able to specify the origin of Mediterranean amphorae, and to locate ancient trade routes spreading out from the North of Italy and South France. From this, a clearer picture of the means of transport used and who the commercial middlemen were has emerged.
The project, which was completed in 2012, also pioneered interdisciplinary collaborations with chemistry teams in order to analyse organic residues and trace elements of perishable products contained in amphorae. “The systematic and large-scale application of these methods has never been used before to explore the contents of Greek amphorae,” says Sacchetti.
Examination of these contexts confirmed that a variety of amphora types which were circulating the Mediterranean at this time arrived in Central Europe, providing compelling evidence that amphora exchange wasn’t limited to the Greek colony of Marseilles, as previously thought.
Understanding the origins of European trade
The project also achieved a more detailed understanding of the chronology of ancient trading routes. Regions opened up to outside trade at different times, which helps to explain different levels of economic and social growth. Up until now, studies have been unable to provide an accurate timeframe, implying that all European sites received Mediterranean imports at the same time.
“The result of this research is a re-evaluation of the economic significance and social impact of these contacts,” says Sacchetti. “The tentative first interactions between Mediterranean and European peoples are more complex from an economic standpoint than previously believed, and open new up perspectives for future research.”