Image: Ricardo André Frantz/Wikimedia Commons.
Home » CSI Evidential Botanicals, Episode 2: CSI Amphorae

CSI Evidential Botanicals, Episode 2: CSI Amphorae

Image: Ricardo André Frantz/Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Ricardo André Frantz/Wikimedia Commons.

Taking the whole evidence-gathering issue back many hundreds of years now to an age before cookery books (cookery, a TV-obsession in the UK…). Amongst their other interesting findings, Brendan Foley et al. (Journal of Archaeological Science) bust the widespread myth that Greek amphorae were just ancient wine carriers (or urn-like containers to transport olive oil). Instead, using approximately 100 nucleotide segments of DNA from material carefully salvaged from the walls of those antique ceramic vessels, which had lain undisturbed on Greek shipwrecks for centuries, the team revealed the presence of numerous plant taxa, e.g. herbs of the Lamiaceae, juniper, terebinth (genus Pistacia – apparently, used as a wine preservative in the Middle East), pine (Pinus), Fabaceae (legume family), Zingiberaceae (ginger family), and Juglandaceae (walnut family). As the team conclude: ‘Ancient DNA investigations open new research avenues, and will allow accurate reconstruction of ancient diet, medicinal compounds, value-added products, goods brought to market, and food preservation methods’ [emphasis added by me]. Certainly, anything that lasts for 2,000 years sounds pretty well preserved to me! Going back even further – to about 6,000 years ago – Oliver Craig and co-workers have been examining ‘cooking residues’ in very old ceramic pots (PNAS 108). The team were interested in determining how quickly the introduction of farming influenced the food that communities ate. Examining lipid residues in cooking pots at about the time of the transition from hunter–gathering to more settled agricultural communities, they concluded that: ‘although changes in pottery use are immediately evident, our data challenge the popular notions that economies were completely transformed with the arrival of farming and that Neolithic pottery was exclusively associated with produce from domesticated animals and plants’. So, then as now, ‘new-fangled’ inventions – like agriculture – took time to catch on! So both this and the previous ‘CSI Herbaria’ show that everything one does leaves some sort of fingerprint (but it may take many hundreds of years for development of techniques that can detect and decipher it!). And – if you’ve got the hunger for more cooking-related items – Rachel Carmody et al.’s paper, entitled ‘Energetic consequences of thermal and nonthermal food processing’ (PNAS), and the interesting commentary thereon by Peter Lucas (PNAS) will provide some, er, food for thought for you.

Nigel Chaffey

I am a Botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that international plant science journal for almost 10 years. As a freelance plant science communicator I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience at Plant Cuttings [] (and formerly at Botany One []). In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. I'm happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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