World

Oldest Known Bottle of Olive Oil on Display in Naples Museum

The nearly 2,000-year-old bottle filled with solidified olive oil will be displayed at the National Archaeological Museum.

Raffaele Sacchi
Oct. 22, 2018
By Ylenia Granitto
Raffaele Sacchi

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Likely the world’s old­est known bot­tle of olive oil will be soon exhib­ited at the National Archae­o­log­i­cal Museum of Naples (MANN), where it was recently pre­sented dur­ing a press con­fer­ence given by the direc­tor of the museum, Paolo Giulierini, and the pale­on­tol­o­gist and TV host, Alberto Angela.

We have a much bet­ter-pre­served glass bot­tle con­tain­ing an abun­dant quan­tity of mate­r­ial, which imme­di­ately proved that it is an edi­ble oil.- Raf­faele Sac­chi, Uni­ver­sity of Naples

The dainty well-pre­served glass con­tainer, almost full of what is almost cer­tainty solid­i­fied olive oil, comes from one of the ancient Roman towns (most likely from Her­cu­la­neum), which were destroyed by the erup­tion of Mount Vesu­vius in 79 A.D.

Angela’s crew was work­ing on the pop­u­lar show Tonight in Pom­peii,’ broad­cast on Italy’s national net­work RAI1, when they noted the bot­tle in the ware­houses of MANN. Then, the relic was brought to the atten­tion of experts of the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­tural Sci­ences (DIA) of the Uni­ver­sity of Naples Fed­erico II,’ which were work­ing on a line of research into ancient food, through an agree­ment with the Museum.

The bot­tle was kept in the museum’s ware­houses, and some­times dis­played in pub­lic dur­ing spe­cial events,” Gae­tano Di Pasquale, of the Lab­o­ra­tory of Veg­e­ta­tion His­tory and Wood Anatomy of DIA told Olive Oil Times. How­ever, con­sid­er­ing the great inter­est that it gen­er­ated thanks to its great con­ser­va­tion sta­tus, we decided to con­duct fur­ther research, and to dis­play it to the pub­lic in a three-month exhi­bi­tion at MANN, which will open on 31 Octo­ber,” revealed the researcher, who will take care of the show with Alessia D’Auria on behalf of DIA.

He explained that there are sev­eral ancient crates and jugs con­tain­ing traces of organic sub­stances which have been described as olive oils, but the data related to the analy­ses per­formed over the last cen­turies can no longer be found.

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The exca­va­tions of Pom­peii and Her­cu­la­neum began in the mid-1700s, then in the muse­um’s store­rooms there is plenty of mate­r­ial dis­cov­ered over last cen­turies, and part of the doc­u­men­ta­tion relat­ing to these finds is still unclear,” he pointed out. That is why MANN entered into an agree­ment with DIA, in order to re-ana­lyze and re-cat­a­log all the food find­ings with the meth­ods avail­able to us today, and our olive oil bot­tle became part of this line of research.”

At this point, it would be inter­est­ing to under­stand where it has been stored, in order to get more infor­ma­tion on the con­text and, there­fore, on the use of olive oil at that time. We know that it was orig­i­nally used as light­ing fuel and as a cos­metic, and it started to be used as a food quite late.

Raffaele Sacchi

The organic mate­r­ial con­tained in the bot­tle in the form of white-yel­low­ish, brown­ish and black­ish glomeruli with a waxy con­sis­tency,” was then sub­jected to chem­i­cal-ana­lyt­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tions includ­ing, among oth­ers, car­bon-13 and pro­ton nuclear mag­netic res­o­nance spec­troscopy, gas chro­matog­ra­phy with cap­il­lary columns of fatty acids, and car­bon-14 dat­ing.

Let me say in advance that, as early as the 1990s, I stud­ied the olive oil con­tained in a small cruet com­ing from the exca­va­tions of Pom­peii,” revealed Raf­faele Sac­chi, a pro­fes­sor of agri-food indus­tries and Mediter­ranean diet ingre­di­ents and prod­ucts, and chair of the divi­sion of Food Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy at DIA, who is con­duct­ing the analy­sis.

It was the typ­i­cal glass vial which was sup­posed to con­tain a scented oint­ment, a cos­metic. Even then, tests revealed that inside was a veg­etable oil, almost cer­tainly extracted from olives,” he spec­i­fied. In this case, how­ever, we have a much bet­ter-pre­served glass bot­tle con­tain­ing an abun­dant quan­tity of mate­r­ial, which imme­di­ately proved that it is an edi­ble oil, and this was con­firmed by the shape of the bot­tle designed as a mod­ern oliera,’ namely an olive oil dis­penser.”

An analy­sis gave us more spe­cific indi­ca­tions with respect to the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the type of oil con­tained: palmitic-stearic acid ratio, oleic acid pres­ence, and the ratio between long-chain fatty acids uni­vo­cally matched olive oil com­po­si­tion, affirmed Sac­chi.

Then, accord­ing to the ana­lyt­i­cal data reported by our expert, this can be con­sid­ered the most ancient con­tainer with the great­est quan­tity of olive oil ever stud­ied (and sur­vivor of an erup­tion), which is a sig­nif­i­cant find com­pared to the more com­mon arti­facts like rem­nants of vases and amphorae con­tain­ing extremely few traces of olive oil.

Researchers are now per­form­ing the Car­bon-14 dat­ing to make sure that the bot­tle is not a recon­struc­tion of the Bour­bon period (1700) when the archae­o­log­i­cal site was first exca­vated. How­ever, I believe this is far-fetched, and almost cer­tainly the find dates back from the period of the erup­tion, because the con­tent pro­file is very sim­i­lar to the one that I ana­lyzed thirty years ago,” Sac­chi observed, spec­i­fy­ing that a por­tion taken from the sur­face of the solid­i­fied mat­ter has been stud­ied, and then they will con­duct a cap­il­lary sam­pling of an inner­most por­tion, which is bet­ter pre­served.

They will per­form other tests, such as an analy­sis of sterols by mass spec­trom­e­try to con­firm the botan­i­cal ori­gin of the oil.

It is inter­est­ing to note that cer­tain changes occur in fatty acids at high tem­per­a­tures, and we dis­cov­ered trans fatty acids that are formed only by heat­ing the oil,” the expert noted.

This could prove that the olive oil was basi­cally cooked at the tem­per­a­ture of the vol­canic cloud, which caused a ther­mal oxi­da­tion, while the glass has resisted because prob­a­bly the bot­tle was open, there­fore there was no pres­sure, and it did not blow up.” The cork is in fact from the Bour­bon period as can be seen from the shape, or in any case, it is not con­tem­po­rary to the bot­tle.

At the moment, this is a hypoth­e­sis, but the com­po­nents found could lead the way to con­firm and ver­ify what the effect of the erup­tion was,” Sac­chi con­cluded.

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