Archaeological Chemistry

Archaeological Chemistry, especially the analysis of ancient organic remains or Biomolecular Archaeology, has come of age in the last twenty years. Ancient foods, perfumes, dyes, and other organics, which could only be imagined from ancient writings, can now be detected and characterized by applying highly sensitive chemical techniques. Archaeological Chemistry promises to open up whole new chapters relating to our human ancestry and genetic development, cuisine, medical practice, and other crafts over the past two million years.

Penn Museum's Archaeological Chemistry laboratory has been at the forefront of these developments. Beginning with the chemical identification of the earliest Royal Purple, the famous dye of the Phoenicians, the laboratory has gone on to develop techniques for identifying fermented beverages, including the earliest grape wine, the earliest barley beer, and "grogs" made of wine, beer, and honey mead. Examples of the latter beverage have now been identified chemically, in ancient drinking vessels recovered from the "Midas Tumulus" at the 8th century BCE capital of the Phrygians in central Turkey, and from sites along Yellow River of China dating as early as 7000 BCE.

Progress in Archaeological Chemistry is being made elsewhere, especially in the universities of Britain and the government-funded museum laboratories of continental Europe. The focus of research there has been on identification of tree resins and lipids (e.g., beeswax and those found in milk products), isotopic studies of foods, and DNA investigation of humans and other organisms. Our program is playing a crucial role in advancing this field in the United States and around the world. For example, using a combined chemical/DNA approach, we are clarifying when and where the Eurasian grape (Vitis vinifera)-the source of 99% of modern wine-was domesticated; and how a Near Eastern "wine culture" emerged around 6000 BCE and spread around the world in subsequent millennia.

As one example of this combined approach, research was carried out on the pottery fabrics and residues inside jars stockpiled in a tomb at Abydos in Egypt, and belonging to one of the first kings of Egypt, Scorpion I (circa 3150 BCE). According to Neutron Activation Analysis, the jars had been manufactured in an area of the southern Levant, extending from the coastal area of Gaza across the Hill Country to the Jordan Valley and Transjordan. Assuming that the contents of the jars were produced in the same region, it appears likely that thousands of liters of resinated wine were transported about 700 kilometers by donkey and ship to Abydos. DNA analysis showed that the wine had been fermented with a precursor of the "wine yeast," Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Importation of wine laid the foundation for the royal winemaking industry in the Nile Delta beginning around 3000 BCE. Similarly, our investigation of early Chinese fermented beverages indicates that a "rice wine culture" was established there in the early Neolithic period (circa 7000–6000 BCE) and had equally far-reaching consequences.

email: Patrick E. McGovern

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