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Oldest Known Bottle of Olive Oil on Display in Naples Museum

Oct. 22, 2018
Ylenia Granitto

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Likely the worldā€™s oldĀ­est known botĀ­tle of olive oil will be soon exhibĀ­ited at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples (MANN), where it was recently preĀ­sented durĀ­ing a press conĀ­ferĀ­ence given by the direcĀ­tor of the museum, Paolo Giulierini, and the paleĀ­onĀ­tolĀ­oĀ­gist and TV host, Alberto Angela.

We have a much betĀ­ter-preĀ­served glass botĀ­tle conĀ­tainĀ­ing an abunĀ­dant quanĀ­tity of mateĀ­rĀ­ial, which immeĀ­diĀ­ately proved that it is an ediĀ­ble oil.- Raffaele Sacchi, University of Naples

The dainty well-preĀ­served glass conĀ­tainer, almost full of what is almost cerĀ­tainty solidĀ­iĀ­fied olive oil, comes from one of the ancient Roman towns (most likely from Herculaneum), which were destroyed by the erupĀ­tion of Mount Vesuvius in 79ā€ÆA.D.

Angelaā€™s crew was workĀ­ing on the popĀ­uĀ­lar show ā€‹ā€˜Tonight in Pompeii,ā€™ broadĀ­cast on Italyā€™s national netĀ­work RAI1, when they noted the botĀ­tle in the wareĀ­houses of MANN. Then, the relic was brought to the attenĀ­tion of experts of the Department of Agricultural Sciences (DIA) of the University of Naples ā€‹ā€˜Federico II,ā€™ which were workĀ­ing on a line of research into ancient food, through an agreeĀ­ment with the Museum.

ā€œThe botĀ­tle was kept in the museumā€™s wareĀ­houses, and someĀ­times disĀ­played in pubĀ­lic durĀ­ing speĀ­cial events,ā€ Gaetano Di Pasquale, of the Laboratory of Vegetation History and Wood Anatomy of DIA told Olive Oil Times. ā€‹ā€œHowever, conĀ­sidĀ­erĀ­ing the great interĀ­est that it genĀ­erĀ­ated thanks to its great conĀ­serĀ­vaĀ­tion staĀ­tus, we decided to conĀ­duct furĀ­ther research, and to disĀ­play it to the pubĀ­lic in a three-month exhiĀ­biĀ­tion at MANN, which will open on 31 October,ā€ revealed the researcher, who will take care of the show with Alessia Dā€™Auria on behalf of DIA.

He explained that there are sevĀ­eral ancient crates and jugs conĀ­tainĀ­ing traces of organic subĀ­stances which have been described as olive oils, but the data related to the analyĀ­ses perĀ­formed over the last cenĀ­turies can no longer be found.

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ā€œThe excaĀ­vaĀ­tions of Pompeii and Herculaneum began in the mid-1700s, then in the museĀ­umā€™s storeĀ­rooms there is plenty of mateĀ­rĀ­ial disĀ­covĀ­ered over last cenĀ­turies, and part of the docĀ­uĀ­menĀ­taĀ­tion relatĀ­ing to these finds is still unclear,ā€ he pointed out. ā€‹ā€œThat is why MANN entered into an agreeĀ­ment with DIA, in order to re-anaĀ­lyze and re-catĀ­aĀ­log all the food findĀ­ings with the methĀ­ods availĀ­able to us today, and our olive oil botĀ­tle became part of this line of research.ā€

At this point, it would be interĀ­estĀ­ing to underĀ­stand where it has been stored, in order to get more inforĀ­maĀ­tion on the conĀ­text and, thereĀ­fore, on the use of olive oil at that time. We know that it was origĀ­iĀ­nally used as lightĀ­ing fuel and as a cosĀ­metic, and it started to be used as a food quite late.

Raffaele Sacchi

The organic mateĀ­rĀ­ial conĀ­tained in the botĀ­tle in the form of ā€‹ā€œwhite-yelĀ­lowĀ­ish, brownĀ­ish and blackĀ­ish glomeruli with a waxy conĀ­sisĀ­tency,ā€ was then subĀ­jected to chemĀ­iĀ­cal-anaĀ­lytĀ­iĀ­cal invesĀ­tiĀ­gaĀ­tions includĀ­ing, among othĀ­ers, carĀ­bon-13 and proĀ­ton nuclear magĀ­netic resĀ­oĀ­nance specĀ­troscopy, gas chroĀ­matogĀ­raĀ­phy with capĀ­ilĀ­lary columns of fatty acids, and carĀ­bon-14 datĀ­ing.

ā€œLet me say in advance that, as early as the 1990s, I studĀ­ied the olive oil conĀ­tained in a small cruet comĀ­ing from the excaĀ­vaĀ­tions of Pompeii,ā€ revealed Raffaele Sacchi, a proĀ­fesĀ­sor of agri-food indusĀ­tries and Mediterranean diet ingreĀ­diĀ­ents and prodĀ­ucts, and chair of the diviĀ­sion of Food Science and Technology at DIA, who is conĀ­ductĀ­ing the analyĀ­sis.

ā€œIt was the typĀ­iĀ­cal glass vial which was supĀ­posed to conĀ­tain a scented ointĀ­ment, a cosĀ­metic. Even then, tests revealed that inside was a vegĀ­etable oil, almost cerĀ­tainly extracted from olives,ā€ he specĀ­iĀ­fied. ā€‹ā€œIn this case, howĀ­ever, we have a much betĀ­ter-preĀ­served glass botĀ­tle conĀ­tainĀ­ing an abunĀ­dant quanĀ­tity of mateĀ­rĀ­ial, which immeĀ­diĀ­ately proved that it is an ediĀ­ble oil, and this was conĀ­firmed by the shape of the botĀ­tle designed as a modĀ­ern ā€‹ā€˜oliera,ā€™ namely an olive oil disĀ­penser.ā€

An analyĀ­sis gave us more speĀ­cific indiĀ­caĀ­tions with respect to the idenĀ­tiĀ­fiĀ­caĀ­tion of the type of oil conĀ­tained: palmitic-stearic acid ratio, oleic acid presĀ­ence, and the ratio between long-chain fatty acids uniĀ­voĀ­cally matched olive oil comĀ­poĀ­siĀ­tion, affirmed Sacchi.

Then, accordĀ­ing to the anaĀ­lytĀ­iĀ­cal data reported by our expert, this can be conĀ­sidĀ­ered the most ancient conĀ­tainer with the greatĀ­est quanĀ­tity of olive oil ever studĀ­ied (and surĀ­vivor of an erupĀ­tion), which is a sigĀ­nifĀ­iĀ­cant find comĀ­pared to the more comĀ­mon artiĀ­facts like remĀ­nants of vases and amphorae conĀ­tainĀ­ing extremely few traces of olive oil.

Researchers are now perĀ­formĀ­ing the Carbon-14 datĀ­ing to make sure that the botĀ­tle is not a reconĀ­strucĀ­tion of the Bourbon period (1700) when the archaeĀ­oĀ­logĀ­iĀ­cal site was first excaĀ­vated. ā€‹ā€œHowever, I believe this is far-fetched, and almost cerĀ­tainly the find dates back from the period of the erupĀ­tion, because the conĀ­tent proĀ­file is very simĀ­iĀ­lar to the one that I anaĀ­lyzed thirty years ago,ā€ Sacchi observed, specĀ­iĀ­fyĀ­ing that a porĀ­tion taken from the surĀ­face of the solidĀ­iĀ­fied matĀ­ter has been studĀ­ied, and then they will conĀ­duct a capĀ­ilĀ­lary samĀ­pling of an innerĀ­most porĀ­tion, which is betĀ­ter preĀ­served.

They will perĀ­form other tests, such as an analyĀ­sis of sterols by mass specĀ­tromĀ­eĀ­try to conĀ­firm the botanĀ­iĀ­cal oriĀ­gin of the oil.

ā€œIt is interĀ­estĀ­ing to note that cerĀ­tain changes occur in fatty acids at high temĀ­perĀ­aĀ­tures, and we disĀ­covĀ­ered trans fatty acids that are formed only by heatĀ­ing the oil,ā€ the expert noted.

ā€œThis could prove that the olive oil was basiĀ­cally cooked at the temĀ­perĀ­aĀ­ture of the volĀ­canic cloud, which caused a therĀ­mal oxiĀ­daĀ­tion, while the glass has resisted because probĀ­aĀ­bly the botĀ­tle was open, thereĀ­fore there was no presĀ­sure, and it did not blow up.ā€ The cork is in fact from the Bourbon period as can be seen from the shape, or in any case, it is not conĀ­temĀ­poĀ­rary to the botĀ­tle.

ā€œAt the moment, this is a hypothĀ­eĀ­sis, but the comĀ­poĀ­nents found could lead the way to conĀ­firm and verĀ­ify what the effect of the erupĀ­tion was,ā€ Sacchi conĀ­cluded.





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