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USF Professor Rewrites Italian History With Help From 4,000-Year-Old Jar

Courtesy Regione Sicilia - Polo Regionale di Siracusa per i siti e musei archeologici Museo Paolo Orsi
Professor Davide Tanasi proved traces of olive oil were once stored in this 4,000-year-old jar, which is 700 years earlier than previously thought.

A USF professor rewrote a tasty part of Italian history after running tests on the inside of a 4,000 year-old jar found in a prehistoric settlement in Castelluccio, Italy.

The jar in question was found in the 1990s by archaeologist Giuseppe Voza. According to Davide Tanasi, since it was located in the center of a hut, it was clearly of some relevance.

“The archeologists were very interested to know more about the content of this vessel, which after so many millennia was completely empty,” said Tanasi, an assistant professor of history and the founder of the Institute for Digital Exploration (IDEx) at USF.

Some researchers suspected that the jar could have once contained olive oil. For the first time, someone has finally been able to prove that - Tanasi, whose hometown of Noto is about 14 miles from the Castelluccio settlement.

Tanasi and his team used a number of tests, including gas chromatography, mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance techniques, to confirm their suspicions.

“So basically what we did was take a piece of the container, a sample of about 100 milligrams,” Tanasi said. “It was grinded and transformed into dust and mixed with chemical re-agents in order to be prepared for the chemical analysis.”

Tanasi and his team ran those tests alongside USF assistant professor of chemistry Ioannis Gelis.

“These tests are meant to identify all the organic components of the archeological sample,” Tanasi said. “The instruments give back, as a result, a spectrum, an image with peaks indicating various components which may be fatty acids or cholesterol.”

The tests that Tanasi and his team ran on the inside of the jar produced a chemical breakdown that was almost an exact match with the chemical breakdown of olive oil.

Tanasi’s findings prove that olive oil was used in Italy about 4,000 years ago, which is 700 years earlier than previously thought. The implications of the results might help provide more insight into Italy’s history.

“It means that already, in 3000 BCE (Before Common Era), in Sicily, ancient communities were involved in agricultural production of olives,” Tanasi said. “They probably chose the location for their settlements with the idea in mind to develop agriculture of olive trees.”

Tanasi believes there is much more to learn about ancient Italy and the way people lived there thousands of years ago.

He said the hut where the jar was found could have been a kitchen where food for the whole village was prepared. He went on to say that different huts in the ancient village could have been used for non-residential purposes.

“It’s an important contribution to rewrite the prehistory of the ancient groups of Sicily,” Tanasi said. “We want to move forward and analyze the contents of all the other pots to see if we can learn more about what was on the menu of those ancient men and women and move onward on the reconstruction of their dietary habits.”

Sam Newlon interning as a WUSF/USF Zimmerman School digital news reporter for spring 2018.
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