Drinking, feasting and dietary habits of Early Celts in Burgundy

Archaeology -- what the Celts drank

drinking Celts
Greek drinking cup from the Early Celtic princely burial mound Kleinaspergle. This vessel is similar to those whose pottery fragments were found in the Celtic settlement on the Mont Lassois. Credit: Württemberg State Museum, P. Frankenstein / H. Zwietasch.

Research carried out by an international team led by scientists from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich and the University of Tübingen reveals aspects of the drinking and dietary habits of the Celts, who lived in Central Europe in the first millennium BCE.

The authors of the new study analyzed 99 ceramic drinking vessels, storage and transport jars recovered during excavations at Mont Lassois in Burgundy. This was the site of a fortified 'princely' settlement of the Early Celts. The finds included pottery and bronze vessels that had been imported from Greece around 500 BCE. "This was a period of rapid change, during which vessels made in Greece and Italy reached the region north of the Alps in large numbers for the first time. It has generally been assumed that this indicates that the Celts began to imitate the Mediterranean lifestyle, and that only the elite were in a position to drink Mediterranean wine during their banquets," says LMU archaeologist Philipp Stockhammer, who led the project. "Our analyses confirm that they indeed consumed imported wines, but they also drank local beer from the Greek drinking bowls. In other words, the Celts did not simply adopt foreign traditions in their original form. Instead, they used the imported vessels and products in their own ways and for their own purposes. Moreover, the consumption of imported wine was apparently not confined to the upper echelons of society. Craftsmen too had access to wine, and the evidence suggests that they possibly used it for cooking, while the elites quaffed it in the course of their drinking parties. The study shows that intercultural contact is a dynamic process and demonstrates how easy it is for unfamiliar vessels to serve new functions and acquire new meanings."

At the University of Tübingen, Maxime Rageot analyses organic residues found in pottery from Mont Lassois. Credit: Victor S. Brigola

Chemical analysis of the food residues absorbed into the ancient pots now makes it possible to determine what people ate and drank thousands of years ago. The group of authors based at the University of Tübingen analyzed these chemical fingerprints in the material from Mont Lassois. "We identified characteristic components of olive oil and milk, imported wine and local alcoholic beverages, as well as traces of millet and beeswax," says Maxime Rageot, who performed the chemical analyses in Tübingen. "These findings show that - in addition to wine - beers brewed from millet and barley were consumed on festive or ritual occasions." His colleague Cynthianne Spiteri adds: "We are delighted to have definitively solved the old problem of whether or not the early Celts north of the Alps adopted Mediterranean drinking customs. - They did indeed, but they did so in a creative fashion!"


The results of the study, which forms part of the BEFIM project (Meanings and Functions of Mediterranean Imports in Early Iron Age Central Europe), have just been published in the online journal PLOS ONE. The collaborative investigation was carried out by researchers from LMU Munich, the University of Tübingen, the Württemberg State Museum, the Landesamt für Denkmalpflege beim Regierungspräsidium Stuttgart, the University of Zürich and the University of Burgundy.


Press release from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München


Early Celts in Burgundy appropriated Mediterranean products and feasting practices

Organic residue analysis of imported Mediterranean pottery fragments detects imported olive oil and wine as well as local beers

Selection of the Early Celtic vessels held in the archive of the Württemberg State Museum. Credit: Victor S. Brigola, CC-BY

Early Celts in eastern France imported Mediterranean pottery, as well as olive oil and wine, and may have appropriated Mediterranean feasting practices, according to a study published June 19, 2019 in PLOS ONE, by Maxime Rageot from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München and the University of Tübingen, and colleagues.

Hundreds of fragments of imported Mediterranean pottery have been excavated from the Early Celtic hillfort site of Vix-Mont Lassois in Burgundy, France. This study is the first to investigate the impact of these Mediterranean imports and of Mediterranean feasting/consumption practices on Early Celtic culture (7th - 5th century BC), using molecular organic residue analysis techniques. The authors performed gas chromatography and GC-mass spectrometry analyses on organic residues extracted from 99 ceramic fragments found at Vix-Mont Lassois: some from 16 vessels imported from the Mediterranean and some from locally produced vessels from different contexts (elite, artisan, ritual, and military).

The results showed that the imported vessels were not only used for wine drinking as an appropriation of Mediterranean feasting practices, but also to drink local beers spiced with pine resins, in what appears to be an intercultural adaptation. Additional home-grown beverages were also found in local pottery, including what may have been millet-based beer, probably consumed only by low-status individuals, and barley-based beer and birch-derived beverages, which seemed to be consumed by high-status individuals. Local pine resins and plant oils were also identified. Beeswax was present in around 50% of the local pottery vessels, possibly indicating that mead was a popular fermented beverage or that the Early Celts liked to sweeten their beverages with honey.

The authors note that common foods such as wheat, barley and rye might have been present in the vessels but could not be detected by their analysis centuries later. Despite this limitation, this study sheds new light on the role of imported Mediterranean food and drink in helping shape Early Celtic feasting practices and demonstrates the potential of this type of molecular analysis also for other archaeological sites.

The authors add: "The Celts in the Early Iron Age did not just drink imported Greek wine from their imported Greek pottery. They also used the foreign vessels in their own way for drinking different kinds of local beer, as organic residue analysis of ca. 100 Early Iron Age local and Mediterranean drinking vessels from Mont Lassois (France) shows."


Citation: Rageot M, Mötsch A, Schorer B, Bardel D, Winkler A, Sacchetti F, et al. (2019) New insights into Early Celtic consumption practices: Organic residue analyses of local and imported pottery from Vix-Mont Lassois. PLoS ONE 14(6): e0218001. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0218001

Funding: MR research was funded by the Deutsches Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (Federal Minstry of Education and Research). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


Press release from the Public Library of Science

Details of first historically recorded plague pandemic revealed by ancient genomes

Details of first historically recorded plague pandemic revealed by ancient genomes

Analysis of 8 new plague genomes from the first plague pandemic reveals previously unknown levels of plague diversity, and provides the first genetic evidence of the Justinianic Plague in the British Isles

Justinianic Plague Yersinia pestis
Map and phylogenetic tree showing the newly published (yellow) and previously published (turquoise) genomes. Shaded areas and dots represent historically recorded outbreaks of the First Pandemic. Credit: Marcel Keller

An international team of researchers has analyzed human remains from 21 archaeological sites to learn more about the impact and evolution of the plague-causing bacterium Yersinia pestis during the first plague pandemic (541-750 AD). In a study published in PNAS, the researchers reconstructed 8 plague genomes from Britain, Germany, France and Spain and uncovered a previously unknown level of diversity in Y. pestis strains. Additionally, they found the first direct genetic evidence of the Justinianic Plague in the British Isles.

The Justinianic Plague began in 541 in the Eastern Roman Empire, ruled at the time by the Emperor Justinian I, and recurrent outbreaks ravaged Europe and the Mediterranean basin for approximately 200 years. Contemporaneous records describe the extent of the pandemic, estimated to have wiped out up to 25% of the population of the Roman world at the time. Recent genetic studies revealed that the bacterium Yersinia pestis was the cause of the disease, but how it had spread and how the strains that appeared over the course of the pandemic were related to each other was previously unknown.

In the current study, an international team of researchers led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History analyzed human remains from 21 sites with multiple burials in Austria, Britain, Germany, France and Spain. They were able to reconstruct 8 new Y. pestis genomes, allowing them to compare these strains to previously published ancient and modern genomes. Additionally, the team found the earliest genetic evidence of plague in Britain, from the Anglo-Saxon site of Edix Hill. By using a combination of archaeological dating and the position of this strain of Y. pestis in its evolutionary tree, the researchers concluded that the genome is likely related to an ambiguously described pestilence in the British Isles in 544 AD.

High diversity of Y. pestis strains during the First Pandemic

The researchers found that there was a previously unknown diversity of strains of Y. pestis circulating in Europe between the 6th and 8th centuries AD. The 8 new genomes came from Britain, France, Germany and Spain. "The retrieval of genomes that span a wide geographic and temporal scope gives us the opportunity to assess Y. pestis' microdiversity present in Europe during the First Pandemic," explains co-first author Marcel Keller, PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, now working at the University of Tartu. The newly discovered genomes revealed that there were multiple, closely related strains of Y. pestis circulating during the 200 years of the First Pandemic, some possibly at the same times and in the same regions.

Despite the greatly increased number of genomes now available, the researchers were not able to clarify the onset of the Justinianic Plague. "The lineage likely emerged in Central Asia several hundred years before the First Pandemic, but we interpret the current data as insufficient to resolve the origin of the Justinianic Plague as a human epidemic, before it was first reported in Egypt in 541 AD. However, the fact that all genomes belong to the same lineage is indicative of a persistence of plague in Europe or the Mediterranean basin over this time period, instead of multiple reintroductions."

Sampling of a tooth from a suspected plague burial. Credit: Evelyn Guevara

Possible evidence of convergent evolution in strains from two independent historical pandemics

Another interesting finding of the study was that plague genomes appearing towards the end of the First Pandemic showed a big deletion in their genetic code that included two virulence factors. Plague genomes from the late stages of the Second Pandemic some 800-1000 years later show a similar deletion covering the same region of the genomes. "This is a possible example of convergent evolution, meaning that these Y. pestis strains independently evolved similar characteristics. Such changes may reflect an adaptation to a distinct ecological niche in Western Eurasia where the plague was circulating during both pandemics," explains co-first author Maria Spyrou of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

The current study offers new insights into the first historically documented plague pandemic, and provides additional clues alongside historical, archaeological, and palaeoepidemiological evidence, helping to answer outstanding questions. "This study shows the potential of palaeogenomic research for understanding historical and modern pandemics by comparing genomes across millennia," explains senior author Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. "With more extensive sampling of possible plague burials, we hope to contribute to the understanding of Y. pestis' microevolution and its impact on humans during the course of past and present pandemics."

Lunel-Viel (Languedoc-Southern France). Victim of the plague thrown into a demolition trench of a Gallo-Roman house; end of the 6th-early 7th century. Credit: 1990; CNRS - Claude Raynaud

Press release from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History / Max-Planck-Instituts für Menschheitsgeschichte