`Oldest Known Bottle of Olive Oil on Display in Naples Museum - Olive Oil Times


Oldest Known Bottle of Olive Oil on Display in Naples Museum

By Ylenia Granitto
Oct. 22, 2018 11:56 UTC

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.

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.


Related Articles