Making wine for the Roman emperor.

Archaeological excavations at the Roman Imperial Estate at Vagnari, Italy, 2015

Prof. Maureen Carroll

This summer Prof. Maureen Carroll and a team of specialists and students explored the archaeological remains of a rural estate at Vagnari in Puglia (ancient Apulia) in south-east Italy which generated revenues for the Roman emperors from the early first century A.D. The Sheffield project began in 2012, and will continue in the coming years.

The project is an interdisciplinary and collaborative programme of research focusing on agricultural and artisanal production in the estate’s central village and the exploitation of human and natural resources in the region. The 2015 excavations revealed a building of the 2nd century A.D. with a large room in which circular plastered basins had been inserted into a mortar floor, each basin holding a ceramic container with a body diameter larger than a metre. This room was a cella vinaria, a wine fermentation and storage room, in which large wine vats (dolia defossa) were fixed in the ground. Dolia were heavy and cumbersome, with a capacity of 1000 litres and more. They were buried up to their necks in the ground to keep the temperature of the wine constant and cool, a necessary measure in hot climate zones like southern Italy. They were used and re-used for long periods of time, being cleaned and lined with pitch every year before the grape harvest.

Such wine ‘cellars’ are known at farms elsewhere in Roman Italy, but this is the first time that evidence for wine-making at Vagnari has been retrieved. And this was no ordinary wine. It was a noble vintage, deriving from vineyards belonging to the empire’s greatest landowner. There is clearly more of Vagnari’s cella vinaria to uncover. We expect to find more dolia, probably arranged in rows, and other facilities, such as a wine press and a tank for the pressed grape juice.

Vagnari landscape

The landscape of the Roman imperial estate at Vagnari, Puglia.

Vagnari dolia defossa

Removing the soil and human bones from a Roman wine vat.

Excavations in 2016 should clarify how large the storage room was, how many dolia of the emperor’s wine in total were housed in it, and what the volumetric storage capacity of the structure was.

Very surprisingly, one of the dolia at Vagnari contained two human skeletons in its fill. It remains an intriguing and challenging question whether we are dealing with victims of a crime, who were hastily dumped in this wine vat after it was no longer used for storing wine, or some other irregular (and illegal) disposal of corpses within the settlement.

The research in and around Vagnari is well on its way to making a significant and innovative contribution to an historical, social, and scientific understanding of life and death in a region that once was intimately connected to the capital of the Roman empire.