Early Celts believed wine should be for all


Analysis of ceramic vessels throws new light on social customs. 


A collection of pottery from the Heuneberg archaeological site.

Victor S Brigola

By Natalie Parletta

Residues from ceramics found at an archaeological site in Germany suggest that Early Celts from all social classes drank generous quantities of Mediterranean wine long before they started importing drinking vessels from the region.

The discovery by a researcher team led by Maxime Rageot, from Germany’s University of Tübingen, challenges notions that wine was always reserved for the elite.

The Heuneberg site, north of the Alps in Baden-Wuerttemberg, has provided significant insights into early urbanisation in central Europe, and a wealth of archaeological evidence points to the importance of intercultural Mediterranean connections in shaping Early Iron Age societies around 500-700 BCE.

Rageot and colleagues set out to explore a new facet of this process by investigating the transformation of consumption practices, particularly drinking. The findings are reported in the journal PLOS ONE.

A rich collection of ceramics and imported Mediterranean goods used for feasting have been found throughout the settlement.

The researchers used gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to extract organic residues from 126 local vessels and seven imported Attic ceramics, including goblets, beakers and bowls used for drinking, jugs and bottles for serving beverages, and vessels used for food preparation and storage.

They found evidence of Mediterranean grape wine from short-chain carboxylic compounds, including succinic, fumaric, malic and tartaric acids.

“Tartaric acid is usually considered to be a grape product/wine marker because of its high concentration in grapes in contrast to other fruits available in Europe during the Early Iron Age,” Rageot says.

The other compounds tartaric acid was found with are recognised markers of wine fermentation. There is no evidence of grape seeds or winemaking in central Europe, the authors note, so it must have been imported.

These were discovered before the first clear evidence of Mediterranean feasting vessels being introduced in the final Hallstatt of the Early Iron Age, evidence that trade took place before the ceramic imports.

They also found other evidence of fermentation from plant or bee-products, suggesting the production of local alcoholic beverages including possibly mead.

The residues were notably found in a range of local vessels from different parts of the settlement that reflect different social classes. Markers of dairy and millet were also revealed, suggesting foods such as porridge were consumed from the same vessels.

“These results pose an important challenge to the notion that Early Celtic elites preferred consuming wine as a means of demonstrating their high status,” write the authors.

After the goblets were imported, however, wine appeared to be restricted to those in the elite plateau. Vessels from the lower town contained more food remnants.

This increased specialisation suggests the Celts adopted more Mediterranean-style feasting practices with greater social distinction, which “coincided with a clear change in function and meaning of wine consumption”.

This distinction, the authors note, continued into later Celtic society when the Greek author Poseidonius recounts that elite Celts drank wine while lower classes drank beer.

“These novel commensal practices seem to have served as a means of creating/enforcing their identities and to further establish/secure their position in society,” they write.

The findings provide new insights into Early Celtic consumption practices, and of “their complex transformation over time, which was certainly influenced in part by the dynamics of intercultural encounter with the Mediterranean”.

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Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
  1. https://www.thoughtco.com/heuneburg-germany-iron-age-hillfort-171245
  2. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0222991
  3. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10814-017-9107-1
  4. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25505088?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
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