Apulian Wine and Adriatic Trade in the Early Roman Empire: A Study of Dolia as a Physical Medium for the Production and Long-range Transport of Eastern Italian Vintages

Recent archaeological work has focused on the Roman wine trade in the western Mediterranean basin, primarily through the study of amphorae containing wine from south-west Italy and the amphora cargoes of shipwrecks. Viticulture was a commercial enterprise not only in western Italy, the wine-growing regions bordering on the east coast of the peninsula almost certainly having taken advantage of the Adriatic to distribute their products to trading partners in Dalmatia, Croatia, and Albania. However, the extent of wine production in eastern Italy, the organisation of the industry, and the transport routes utilised are poorly known and understudied.

The stimulus for this project was the discovery in 2015 of an imperial winery at Vagnari in Apulia in which wine was stored in ceramic vats (dolia defossa) of enormous capacity of up to 1000 litres, dating to the 1st-2nd centuries AD. Dolia were ceramic containers manufactured for this specific task, and, hence, they are much rarer in the archaeological record than the smaller transport amphorae. They represent a significant monetary investment by any landowner or shipper, and were therefore refilled annually and used for long periods.

Sherds from the dolia at Vagnari are being analysed by two scientific teams. A team from the University of Palermo (Giuseppe Montana, Luciana Randazzo) are conducting a petrographic and chemical analysis of vessel fragments to determine the origins of the clays and, thus, identify the geographic location of the kilns in which these costly vats were manufactured. This will enable us to recognise what resources were mobilised over potentially long distances to establish the wine industry at Vagnari. Colleagues from the University of Bradford (Ben Stern, Val Steele) are carrying out a residue analysis of the dolia sherds for tartaric acid, a marker for wine. The pitch lining of the Vagnari dolia is indicative of wine storage, according to ancient agrarian writers, and an analysis of the pitch will determine whether the source is pine or birch or other genus, shedding light on the Roman methods of storing and preserving wine in these containers.

The project also aims to complete a detailed documentation of the Vagnari dolia and to reconstruct their shapes and volumes in order to understand how they fit within the range of vessels of this type in Italy. Eastern Italian wine production sites and port facilities are a focus of the study, as well as known sites on the eastern Adriatic coast. Particular attention is paid to dolium yards or warehouses on coastal sites, as well as shipwrecks containing transport dolia.

In sum, the project is an innovative and interdisciplinary one designed to explore the historical and economic context of wine production in eastern Italy and the role of bulk trade in this commodity in connecting communities across the Adriatic. The project is funded by The British Academy/The Leverhulme Trust.

Dolium defossum