DNA survives two millennia underwater to shed light on amphorae

By Norman Hammond

Amphorae were the workaday containers of the ancient world, used to ship everything from aromatic wine to smelly fish sauce around the Mediterranean and beyond.

Thousands have been found, in shipwrecks and in fragments at their destinations. 

Over the years, certain assumptions have grown up as to what was shipped in particular forms of amphorae and from specific source areas, and the remains of pottery containers have stood proxy for their presumed contents’ significance in ancient economies.

In most cases no direct evidence of those contents could be obtained: long burial in the ground or on the seabed had, it was thought, washed away any evidence. 

A new study now shows that traces of ancient DNA can survive more than two millennia underwater.

These can be multiplied using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) established in forensic analysis to yield evidence of what the amphorae contained: sometimes the results are surprising.


Mediterranean sea archaeology

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