In Search of Ancient Organics
McGovern heads the Molecular Archaeology Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology (MASCA). He is the author of Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture (2003 Princeton University Press). The book is an account of the scientist's long career combining analytical chemistry and biochemistry with archaeologysometimes with startling results.
McGovern's quest for the origins of ancient wine all began with a sea snail. In ancient times, royal purple, the deep blue dye derived from the glands of Mediterranean mollusks, was the color of kings and emperorsand for good reason. It takes ten thousand glands to produce one gram of the purple liquid. The dye had long been associated with the early Phoenicians.
Early in his career, while McGovern served as a pottery specialist on a University of Pennsylvania expedition to Lebanon, workers excavated pottery fragments that had a dark red residue inside. "We had some samples that were about 3,000 years old, and we started a series of analyses," the scientist recalled.
McGovern's results established with a high level of probability that the residue was genuine royal purple from a pre-Phoenician (Canaanite) site dating back to before 1,200 B.C. "It was a very exciting discovery, which showed that these organic compounds can stick around for a long time," he said.
McGovern reasoned that other high-end organicssuch as winecould be chemically teased out of the archaeological record. In 1988 a colleague, Virginia Badler, brought him fragments of a jar. The shards, dated back to about 3,000 B.C., came from the ancient village of Godin Tepe in the Zagros Mountains of western Iran.
Badler suspected that the reddish stain present on one side of the fragments was wine residue. McGovern's tests proved her hunch correct.
Together with colleague Rudolph Michel, McGovern used several techniques to test the samples, including infrared analysis, liquid chromatography, and a specific wet chemical test for tartaric acid.
"We focused on this one compound called tartaric acid, which in the Middle East is very specific to grapes," McGovern said. "So if you can identify that, then you will show that you have a grape product."
The vessel's shape and stoppered neck indicated that its makers intended to keep oxygen out. (Oxygen turns wine into vinegar.) Further tests indicated the presence of resin from the terebinth tree, a Middle Eastern member of the cashew family.
According to McGovern, aromatic resins were often used in ancient times to preserve wine and sometimes mask unpleasant tastes or flavors. Resinated wines were common. One variety exists today in Greecethe pine tree-flavored wine called retsina.
In all likelihood, the jar once held an ancient vintage of wine. McGovern's detective work indicated that winemaking dated back to at least 5,000 years agomuch older than previously thought.
A few years later, his chemical analysis of pottery excavated from a site called Hajii Firuz, also in Iran's Zagros Mountains, pushed the earliest known evidence of wine back another 2,000 to 2,400 years, well into the Neolithic period.
After the Flood, Noah Grew Grapes
McGovern's current focus on eastern Turkey reflects his hypothesis that grape domestication, and its attendant wine culture, began in a specific region and spread across the ancient world.
He calls it the Noah Hypothesis, as it suggests a single locality for an ancestor grape, much as the Eve Hypothesis claims that human ancestry can be genetically traced to a single African mother. In the Bible, Noah landed on the slopes of Mount Ararat (in what is now eastern Turkey) after the Flood. He is described as immediately planting grapevines and making wine.
Neolithic eastern and southeastern Turkey seems to have been fertile ground for the birth of agriculture. "Einkorn wheat appears to have been domesticated there, one of the so-called Neolithic founder plantsthe original domesticated plants that led to people settling down and building towns," McGovern explained. "So all the pieces are there for early domestication of the grape."
The scientist will run his usual battery of tests on the pottery and stone fragments collected during his expedition in the region. He'll also subject the objects to a special liquid test to confirm the presence of tartaric acid. McGovern's Italian and Turkish colleagues, meanwhile, will carry out the DNA analysis. "Once I start doing the analyses, then we'll see if we have any evidence," he said.
For McGovern, the study of wine, with all its social and economic complexities, can open the doors of perception into ancient civilizations. Even a good bottle of Merlot or Shiraz, enjoyed today, can recreate history, in a sense.
"You feel like you're transported back in time to when this beverage was actually served," the scientist mused. "That's what I think is so exciting about this kind of research. It really is taking those little hints and clues about the organic remains. It makes it come alive."
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