One crisp winter day in 2004, Uran Pelushi was walking along the banks of the Vivo, a creek in the Seggiano Valley in southern Tuscany. Unexpectedly, he saw an object jutting from the leaf-covered earth.
At first, it resembled among the lots of charcoal-colored tuff rocks that cover the ground in the location. But as he removed the weeds around it, a more complex structure began to emerge. What he revealed was a mossy stone that had actually been sculpted to develop two basins, each about two feet across and linked by a little channel. Instantly, Pelushi knew he needed to telephone. “I think I have actually discovered one of those stones,” he told his manager, British wine maker Charlotte Horton, who had asked him to report sightings of any unusual rocks.
Horton initially learned about the stones in 2002 on a walk with pal and local farmer Moreno Filoni. “I was instantly curious about them and asked Moreno what they were,” she remembers. Filoni, like many residents, had some vague ideas about the basins, which locals call pestarole. It was typically thought the Etruscans, individuals who inhabited Tuscany and Latium prior to the Romans, most likely excavated volcanic stones for agricultural functions. “Many individuals believed they were used to water animals,” Horton says. “But I wasn’t encouraged.”
All of the stones she had actually encountered were right by rivers, something that challenged the watering choice– animals did not need man-made basins to consume. The stones were also slanted, suggesting that they were utilized to process something in the upper basin that would flow to the lower basin. “As a wine maker, my impulse was that they were utilized to make red wine,” Horton says.
2 years later, she turned her impulse into practice. Together with a group of volunteers, she transferred grapes from her vineyards to the neighboring “wine making stones,” as she now calls them. A video from the time shows a group of enthusiastic harvesters stomping their bare feet on the plum-colored grapes, put in the upper basin, while others gathered the must, a mix of juice and pulp, from the lower basin with containers.
This easy, intuitive technique provides insight into how the Etruscans may have made their red wine. Etruscans are widely thought to have actually taught winemaking to the Romans and the people living in modern-day France, making their practices the foundations of both Italian and French wine. Wine makers around the world are thus fascinated in the possibility of comprehending more about their techniques.
However as Horton soon discovered, finding more about the pestarole is not an easy accomplishment. “There is extremely limited research on these structures,” states Cinzia Loi, teacher of archeology at the University of Sassari, and the author of the only academic research study on the stones. Loi took a look at 145 white wine stones primarily in the areas of Guilcer and Barigadu, in rural Sardinia. “It’s really tough to discover evidence that can show how they were used,” she says.
Horton herself spent years gathering details on the stones and discovered very little that might assist her comprehend more about when they were made and when they were used. Undeterred, she decided to take things in her own hands. She now runs an exploratory archaeobotanical task at Potentino, her 10-acre farm estate at the foothills of Mount Amiata.
A view from Potentino, Horton’s estate.
When thinking about southern Tuscany, many people can invoke an image of rolling hills and wineries dotted by medieval towns. However, the valley of Mount Amiata is a collection of chestnut and beech forests, thermal water springs, and volcanic boulders. “Mount Amiata used to be an active volcano,” says Guido Lavorini, a geologist working for the local government. “This discusses why this location looks morphologically different from neighboring valleys.” The volcanic past is still evident today, with tall stones towering over the valley in places like Vivo d’Orcia, Piancastagnaio, and Dante’s Rock. The volcano, Lavorini adds, developed out of a pre-existing sea that once covered this area between the Cretaceous and the Pliocene eras.
Horton’s winery lies at the foothills of Mount Amiata in an area known to residents as Conca d’Oro, or “the golden bowl,” due to the high fertility of the land. Here, she runs a winery, a bed and breakfast, and an education center, all hosted within the once-abandoned 14th-century estate that she renovated in the late 1990s. “I keep finding new things that make this location so special,” she says. Without even understanding, Horton’s family had purchased land in what she now explains “a winemaker’s dream location.”
On top of the great fertility of the volcanic soil, there is an ideal micro-climate for growing grapes, thanks to the cool air that flows from Mount Amiata. Just recently, Horton has actually found out that her land is also filled with fossils, a legacy of the time when the entire location was a warm and shallow sea. “Minerals from ancient sediments alter to clay minerals,” says Terri Hood, a professor of geology who studied the soil of Horton’s estate. “In the process, they launch macro and micronutrients.”
These clay minerals help keep water and dissolve nutrients right in the root zone of plants, serving as fertilizers. “I think this is why the Etruscans were here in the very first location,” Horton says. “They were fantastic observers of nature, and understood they had actually found the best location to grow food.”
The Etruscans are known for their fancy cult of the dead– they developed entire underground cities devoted to the deceased– and for their flourishing maritime trade with nearby Mediterranean civilizations. They were likewise referred to as grape farmers. Proof of viniculture in the area has actually been discovered going back to 1000 B.C., says Andrea Ciacci, a professor of archeology at the University of Siena, including that, back then, people most likely tended wild grapes.
Archeologists have actually discovered much proof that red wine belonged to Etruscan life, from clay amphorae from shipwrecks to representations of wine-fueled banquets. “Red wine appears to have actually been a key element of social life during the 8th century [B.C.],” states Professor Anthony Tuck, chair of the Classics department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Written records likewise cite the Etruscans as red wine exporters. In his very first century B.C. Biblioteca Historica, ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus points out that the Etruscans were exporting red wine to the Gauls, a people that resided in what is now France, for an “extortionary quantity of cash.”
Oral traditions also appear to recommend a link between existing winemaking customs and the Etruscans. “In parts of Tuscany today, individuals request the intervention of Faflan to assist with the harvest,” Tuck says. “Faflan sound a lot like Fuflun, the Etruscan god of wine from which the Roman God Bacchus was established.”
However when it pertains to actually proving that these ancient individuals were winemakers, things get more made complex.”The challenge is that, even when we have paleobotanical proof of grapes dating to Etruscan times, we don’t have proof that grape was utilized for red wine,” Tuck states.
This, Tuck discusses, is mainly due to the fact that Etruscan winemaking would not leave behind archeological proof. “My guess is that they mostly processed grapes in wicker or woven baskets,” he says, adding that images portraying this strategy have actually been found. But grapes and wicker tend to dissolve over thousands of years.
Archeologists understand that the Etruscans could grow grapes and they understand that wine was a central part of Etruscan culture. But what’s missing out on is definite archeological proof that they were winemakers. Horton’s white wine stones may be the missing out on link.
In 2021, Horton launched the Potentino Exploration Task, a multi-disciplinary research effort aimed at reconstructing the history and prehistory of the Seggiano Valley and the Monte Amiata region. Horton asked academics in disciplines such as archeology, ethnobotany, and biodiversity to do fieldwork at her estate in southern Tuscany. The very first workshops kicked off last summer season. In June, Greg Warden, a Professor of Archeology at Franklin University Switzerland, led a group of trainees in archeological workshops around the estate.
First, Warden attempted to date the white wine stones. “It’s not difficult to date the stone itself, geologically,” Warden explains. “However it’s almost difficult to date when the stone was sculpted.”
In cases like this, archeologists try to find contextual proof, which in most cases includes products discovered near an artifact that suggest when it had actually been utilized. “We were looking for ceramics especially,” Wardens says, “however also any product proof linked to making use of the vats.”
Warden and a group of 14 trainees excavated three areas in different parts of the estate. Nothing of note emerged, however he plans to come back next summer season to keep looking for anything that may connect these stones to Etruscan winemaking.
Much of the stones were in usage until just recently.
Sculpted stones like the ones discovered in Tuscany exist all around the Mediterranean and Middle East. They have been found in Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Malta, Georgia, and Iraq. In Italy alone, there are thousands, spread out from Liguria in the north, all the way to the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. The largest cluster to date was found in Calabria, the area situated in the “toe” of Italy. Here, more than 1,000 wine making stones rest on the coast near Locri, on the Ionian sea.
While Warden never ever discovered contextual proof around Horton’s estate, scientist Loi, the author of the only academic research study on wine stones, has actually discovered ceramic pieces of amphorae scattered around a few of the stones that she studied in Sardinia. However in order to better comprehend how the stones were used, she relied on experimental archeology, a discipline dedicated to testing archaeological hypotheses. “We believed the stones were used either as a tool for processing natural fibers or as basins to harvest grapes,” she discusses.
Together with a group of students, Loi set up 2 experiments based on each hypothesis. In the first one, they placed animal skin and plant fibers in the upper basin. They then included enough water to allow for fiber retting, where water is utilized to break down materials, making fabric fibers extractable. “That did not work effectively,” Loi states. “The fact that the stones are shallow and slanted does not enable water to stagnate long enough to break down the fibers.” Plus, it took a long period of time and a lot of water to clean the stones after the experiment, something that would make little sense in the water-scarce Mediterranean.
In her 2nd experiment, Loi put grapes in the upper basin. The grapes were then stomped by foot by Loi and her group. Like Horton, Loi discovered that the stones appeared to be completely developed for the purpose. Grapes put in the upper basin could be quickly crushed thanks to friction with the underlying rock. Need to quickly streamed in the lower basin, due to gravity.
Based on these experiments, Loi concluded that the stones were most likely utilized for wine making. “This study was just the start of what I hope can be a more thorough and bigger study on these artifacts,” she states.
For years, Loi has actually actively asked local cultural heritage institutions to support her scholastic interest in the stones. However the majority of the time, she has actually found little or no support. The factor for this absence of interest from organizations is because of an unexpected reality: Several of these olden stones were used to make red wine in living memory, in some locations up till the 1950s. “Many individuals in this part of Sardinia have memories of their grandparents stomping red wine in these stones,” Loi says.
Horton, too, has discovered evidence of winemaking stones in action, from a photographic archive by 19th-century anthropologist Gerard Rolfs. “I discovered this picture last year,” she states, showing a black and white image from the late 19th century illustrating individuals using white wine stones in Calabria. “It was my ah-ha minute!” Horton says, adding that she thought this image might be the “last evidence” that these stones were used to make red wine.
However, in a twisted logic, evidence of recent usage is what makes local cultural heritage institutions unenthusiastic in the stones. “Considering that we can’t show that these stones were utilized in ancient times, the majority of people believe they are just unsophisticated tools from a current, in reverse previous,” Loi discusses.
Some of the stones are sculpted with Justinian crosses, suggesting a possible date of origin.
The same problem is raised by Orlando Sculli, a retired high school teacher with an enthusiasm for archeology. Sculli lives in the area of Locride, in southern Calabria. Over the last ten years he has actually found and cataloged as lots of as 157 wine making stones in the location. Yet, when he approached local cultural heritage organizations to request for official studies on the stones, he was regularly rejected. “They do not see these as a legacy of ancient civilizations,” he discusses. “They just see them as in reverse agricultural tools.”
In 2014, Sculli finally found some proof that helped change authorities’ perception of the artifacts. After taking a look at images of the wine making stones of Locride, he observed that 2 of them had been sculpted with the Justinian cross, the symbol of Emperor Justinian who ruled the Byzantine Empire between 527 to 565. “This shows that they remained in usage at least as far back as 1,500 years back,” Sculli states.
Sculli also found a description by historian Diodorus Siculus that appears to refer to the winemaking stones. In a passage from his Historiae, Diodorus points out within the cellar of Tellia, the richest man living in what is modern-day Agrigento in Sicily, there were “300 tanks hewn out of stones, each as large as 100 amphorae.” He likewise adds that, near these tanks, there was a basin “as big as a thousand amphorae from which they moved the wine in the tanks.”
When Sculli brought forward this evidence to state archeologists in 2016, they consented to commission the very first official study on winemaking stones. The findings will be submitted to a group of professionals that will evaluate if they qualify as items of cultural interest. What Loi, Horton, and Sculli all hope is that cultural heritage organizations will ultimately consider the stones as worthwhile of protection. “Right now there is no defense at all,” Sculli says, including that just recently, some stones in the Ferruzzano have been damaged by excavators doing public works.
The study will also offer the first authorities dating of these artifacts, something that will finally shed light into the timeline of their development. It is highly likely that they were very first created in pre-Roman times and later on adopted by the Romans and other civilizations. “Thanks to strenuous archeological assessment, we will soon have the ability to date the stones more precisely,” Sara Bini, a state archeologist involved with the research study explains. “We believe a few of these go back to Imperial Rome, while others are a lot more ancient.”
Horton has actually utilized the stones on her property to make red wine.
After her very first experiment in 2004, Horton has improved her “Etruscan” winemaking method. She presently produces a magenta-colored natural white wine called Tumulus, Latin for “little hill,” made of Sangiovese grapes squashed by foot on wine stones. The red wine is then aged for six months in stainless steel and bottled in amphora-shaped ceramic flasks. “I believe this is the closest you get to making red wine the way the Etruscans used to,” she says.
Next summertime, the Potentino Expedition Job will resume. Warden will return to this remote corner of Tuscany to keep searching for anything that can prove that Etruscans successfully made wine using these particular stones more than 2,000 years ago. If the archeological search yields results, it might change the way we comprehend Etruscan winemaking.
However to Horton, Etruscan winemaking at Potentino isn’t just about the history. She sees it as part of a larger technique to spare this unique valley from advancement. In recent decades, regional administrators have actually pressed to develop hotels in the area. That would suggest losing a possibility to study and preserve a region that has remained virtually untouched by modernization.
“This is one of the few areas in Tuscany that hasn’t been ravaged by industrial farming practices that annihilate types biodiversity,” says Meryl Shriver-Rice, a teacher of environmental archeology at the University of Miami who is leading biodiversity research as part of Potentino Exploration Job. Next summer, Shriver-Rice and her students will look for evidence of previous farming practices and the method they impacted local biodiversity.
Horton’s Potentino Exploration Project ultimately hopes to prove that farming and wine making are the best future markets for the valley, along with for ongoing research study into the Etruscans. “What’s interesting to me is the connection between this location, these ancient traditions, and wine,” Horton says as she reveals photos of excited volunteers crushing Sangiovese grapes on the wine making stones like people likely did some 2,500 years ago. “It’s not 1970’s design construction advancement that this sort of location requirements,” she continues. “It’s preservation, research study, and innovation.”
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