Blog Post #48: Treading grapes and crushing olives: the production of wine and oil in the ancient Mediterranean with Dr. Emlyn Dodd

In February we’re cooking up a food-and-drink-themed blog series for you, featuring scholars who study eating and drinking culture in the ancient world from a variety of avenues, from texts to pottery to experimental archaeology.

Wine and olive oil were quintessential products of the ancient Mediterranean. They played crucial roles in Graeco-Roman society, economy, culture and even politics. Across most of the Roman Mediterranean, wine was the preferred beverage of choice for the wealthy and poor, a chief intoxicant, and an essential source of carbohydrates in the daily diet. Olive oil was used for fuel in cooking, lighting and heating, personal hygiene (soap), craft and agriculture, and within the kitchen and cuisine. Arguably, these two commodities shaped (and continue to shape) the physical, cultural, and economic landscapes of the Mediterranean. 

My research investigates ancient wine and oil through one of the most recognisable and informative proxies: production facilities. This includes the remnants of mechanical wine and oil presses, treading floors for grapes, olive mills, cellars, and storage areas. These leave durable traces in the archaeological record because, except for the wooden direct-screw press, they were largely constructed of stone, plaster, or brick. To illuminate production in a holistic sense, this material culture is complemented by the ancient literature – namely agricultural treatises, but also poetry, recipes, and historical accounts – as well as artistic representation (e.g. mosaics, fig. 1), and cutting edge scientific sampling and analytical methodologies. 

A ceiling mosaic depicting a grape harvest is highly decorative, with many floral motifs, and repeating patterns.
Fig. 1 Mosaic depicting the grape harvest and wine production, using treading in basins that flow into dolia, at the 4th c. CE Mausoleum of Constantia, Rome
A reconstructed olive press is displayed in a room with woven baskets and other tools. The press is made of stone and metal.
Fig. 2 Reconstructed ancient, or pre-modern, olive crusher at the Eggares Olive Oil Museum, Naxos, Greece

I am currently working at sites across Turkey, Greece, and Italy to investigate production through different lenses in collaboration with a range of archaeological projects. What is immediately noticeable is that, as today, production could vary greatly between regions (in terms of methods, but also in the modern sense of terroir), occurred on a variety of different scales and complexities, and was made for a range of people and purposes. It was almost infinitely nuanced and variable. 

A large stone wine cellar in a stone walled open-air room. The floor has 18 openings with stone lids on them.
Fig. 3 The large cella vinaria for collection, fermentation and storage of wine at Villa Regina, Boscoreale, Italy

Pompeii and the Vesuvian region provide a rare glimpse into the Roman world of viniculture. Along with large-scale villa production (e.g. Villa dei Misteri or Villa Regina, fig. 3), many vineyards and smaller production facilities hid behind taverns and inns as locals grew grapes and made wine for the immediate community. 

a colourful autumn vineyard in the foreground with an Amphitheatre of Pompeii in the background.
Fig. 4 The vineyard, with amphitheatre in the background, at Insula II.5 at Pompeii, Italy
a reconstructed wine press made of wood, stone, and cordage sits inside a stone walled room
Fig. 5 Reconstructed wine press (albeit inaccurate) and collection vat at Insula II.5 at Pompeii

One such location is Insula II.5 at Pompeii (the rather incorrectly named ‘Foro Boario’) where, amidst a vineyard, a small cellar with 10 dolia is preserved, along with a (now reconstructed) lever press and vat to make wine (figs. 4–6). In fact, the vineyard we see today has been replanted with over 2000 vines according to the root cavities preserved from the eruption of 79 CE – expertly recorded and reconstructed by the archaeologist Jashemski in the 1960s. Located just across the road from the amphitheatre at Pompeii (fig. 4), there are also triclinia in the vineyard – places for Romans to recline, eat and drink – perhaps suggesting that the owner sold their wine directly on the premises. Can we imagine this insula as a pit-stop for locals before or after gladiatorial games, much as we use the canteens and restaurants that surround sports stadiums today? 

A stone wine cellar with eight visible openings in the ground beside the wine press.
Fig. 6 Small cella vinaria next to the wine press, Insula II.5, Pompeii

In the Greek Cycladic region, I am working to discover and record production at the other end of the spectrum (fig. 7). Here, preservation is comparatively poor and often only monumental counterweight stones, press beds or waterproofed vats survive (e.g. in the foreground of fig. 8). Nonetheless, we can slowly observe trends emerging from these surveys.  

The author stands in a dry grassy field with a camera in his hands, looking at two stone wine press counterweights on the ground.
Fig. 7 Emlyn with two press counterweights at the Palaiopyrgos tower site, Paros, Greece
A stone winemaking installation sits upon a stone floor outside, surrounded by ancient stone ruins.
Fig. 8 A Late Antique winemaking installation on ‘Rue V’, Delos, Greece

In the Cyclades, wine and/or oil production often occurred in the countryside – different to that within the busy, urban context of Pompeii – and frequently reused centuries-old infrastructure. Terraced vineyards are still used across islands today, as they were in antiquity (fig. 9). At the Cheimarrou tower on Naxos, a large Late Antique olive oilery was inserted into rooms surrounding a still-standing Hellenistic tower from the 4th c. BCE (fig. 10). This trend of tower reuse for wine and oil production seems common across Cycladic islands. 

vineyards grow on incrementally stepped mountainsides. A road runs around the lower portion of the vineyard.
Fig. 9 Terraced vineyards on Naxos, Greece, with vines still grown in small basket-shaped shrubs to protect them from winds as they were in antiquity

Not only does this begin to reveal the agricultural history of these islands, but, when observed alongside other archaeological evidence from these locations, it starts to contrast with some of the ancient literature. Traditionally, we are told that the Cyclades were places of exile and desolation in the Roman and Late Antique eras (see Catullus IV; Juvenal, Sat. I 73, X 170; Tacitus, Ann. III 68–9; Tertullian De Pall. II). Now archaeological survey and excavation is beginning to illuminate another side to this story. Monumental civic, domestic, and religious architecture and infrastructure (e.g. aqueducts) continued to be built across many of these islands, with thriving agriculture and ceramic production (at least periodically) and evidence of wine and/or oil export across the Mediterranean. 

 

While research in this field, and ancient agriculture generally, has accelerated dramatically over the past three decades, substantial analytical and interpretational issues remain. Perhaps most problematic is our recurring inability to distinguish between wine and oil production facilities, particularly in cases of fragmentary survey evidence. Organic residue analysis, among other scientific methods, helps here but is not possible in many cases due to costs, resources, or availability in survey projects. Larger collaborative, rigorous, and systematic cross-regional studies are needed with efforts underway to bring together researchers in this area and create open-access resources for future use. It is our hope that such work will pave the way forward for archaeological studies in wine and oil and enable us to better understand these processes – and thus the socio-cultural and -economic history – of the Graeco-Roman world.  

An ancient stone tower surrounded by metal scaffolding stands among ruins and trees
Fig. 10 Aerial view of the Hellenistic tower and Late Antique oilery at Cheimarrou, Naxos
Further Reading

Blogs and Articles

Dodd, E. 2021. ‘Was ancient wine more alcoholic than modern wine?’ Bad Ancient

Dodd, E. 2021. ‘Wine and olive oil across the ancient Cyclades: a preliminary report and new thoughts on the development of Greek and Roman press technology.’ Mediterranean Archaeology 32/33 (2019/2022): 123–38. 

Dodd, E. 2020. ‘Pompeii is famous for its bodies and ruins, but what about its wine?.’ The Conversation

Podcasts

Dodd, E. 2021. ‘Wine and the vine: A walk through ancient Greek viticulture.’ Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens Public Lecture. 2 June. 

Dodd, E. 2021. ‘Winemakers of the ancient Graeco-Roman world’, Working Over Time podcast. Little Fire Media. 

Dodd, E. 2020. ‘Volcanic vineyards of Pompeii’, The Ancients podcast. History Hit TV. 

Books

Brun, J.-P. 2004. Archéologie du vin et de l’huile dans l’Empire romain. Paris: Errance. 

Brun, J.-P. 2004. Archéologie du vin et de l’huile: de la préhistoire à l’époque hellénistique. Paris: Errance. 

Brun, J.-P. 2003. Le vin et l’huile dans la Méditerranée antique: viticulture, oleiculture et proceeds de fabrication. Paris: Errance. 

Dodd, E. 2020. Roman and Late Antique Wine Production in the Eastern Mediterranean. Archaeopress, Oxford. 

Foxhall, L. 2007. Olive Cultivation in Ancient Greece: Seeking the Ancient Economy. Oxford University Press. 

Waliszewski, T. Elaion: Olive Oil Production in Roman and Byzantine Syria-Palestine. PAM Monographs 6. Warsaw. 

The author stands in front of a bright blue wall with Turkish wine pots of various sizes along it.
Dr Emlyn Dodd with the collection of ancient amphorae in the Macquarie University History Museum

Emlyn is Assistant Director for Archaeology at the British School at Rome. He also holds Research Affiliate positions at the Australian Archaeological Institute in Athens, Centre for Ancient Cultural Heritage and Environment, is an Honorary Postdoctoral Fellow at Macquarie University and an elected Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He has recently won a number of grants and awards for his research on Cycladic islands, including from the Australian Academy of the Humanities, British School at Athens, Macquarie University, and the Australasian Society for Classical Studies. 

Emlyn currently directs a survey project in the Cyclades, investigating the production of wine and oil, among other commodities, and the presence of knowledge networks, with a focus on the identification and distribution of agricultural technology and knowledge of these processes in the Classical to Late Antique eras. He also co-directs the British School at Rome excavations at the Roman city of Falerii Novi in Italy. He is working across agricultural and settlement sites in Lazio and Campania (Italy) and Mustis (Tunisia) and is an active collaborator and consultant within the Antiochia ad Cragum Archaeological Research Project (Gazipasa, Turkey), with the University of Nebraska. He has previously worked at Delos, the Athenian Agora and Acropolis (Greece); Pompeii, Oplontis, Carsulae and in Sicily (Italy). 

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