Gaetano Di Pasquale
Found in Cetamura, an ancient hilltop near Gaiole in Chianti in the province of Siena, the 105-foot-deep well yielded a bonanza of artifacts such as bronze vessels, cups, statuettes, coins and game pieces. The objects span a period of more than 15 centuries and embrace Etruscan, Roman and medieval civilization in Tuscany.
The most precious material, though, might be some 500 waterlogged grape seeds.
Found in at least three different levels of the well, which include the Etruscan and Roman levels, the perfectly preserved pips can provide key insights into the history of viticulture in a region now famous for its bold reds.
"The seeds were found at levels ranging from the third century B.C. to the first century A.D. Since they are not burned, they might carry preserved DNA," Nancy de Grummond, a professor of classics at Florida State, told Discovery News.
De Grummond, who has performed work at Cetamura since 1983, has been excavating the well for the past four years under the supervision of the Archaeological Superintendency of Tuscany and with the help of the Italian archaeological firm of Ichnos, directed by Francesco Cini.
The seeds were subjected to analysis at the lab of vegetation history and wood anatomy of the University of Naples Federico II. There, researchers led by Gaetano di Pasquale processed the obtained data with statistical software in order to highlight differences of size and shape for each pip.
It is known that seeds of wild grape (Vitis vinifera subsp. Sylvestris), the ancestor common to all cultivated species, is smaller and rounder, while cultivated grapes have bigger and elongated pips.
"The first results seem to indicate the Etruscans had a more advanced viticulture compared to the Romans. Roman seeds appear to be wild, suggesting less cultivated species were grown at that time," Di Pasquale told Discovery News.
"In any case, it is very likely that different grapes grew in Cetamura in Etruscan and Roman times," he added.
The recipe for Chianti Classico was standardized by Baron Bettino Ricasoli in the mid-19th century and called for 70 percent Sangiovese to be blended with 15 percent red Canaiolo and 15 percent white Malvasia.
Whether the Etruscans or the Romans used a composition similar to modern Chianti is not known.
The challenge for Di Pasquale's team is to identify and name the waterlogged seeds.
"An answer could come from ancient DNA analysis, but we are still at an experimental stage," Di Pasquale said.
Meanwhile, archaeologists were able to put into context the grape pips as they unearthed many objects associated with wine serving and drinking and numerous ceramic vessels related to wine storage.
"A curious detail is that the grape seeds were often found inside the bronze buckets, perhaps indicating a ritual element," de Grummond said.
She noted the seeds were also found at the very bottom of the well, along with olive pits and hazel nuts, very likely offerings made at the time when the well was completed.
A large amount of well-preserved wood, probably also part of the offerings, was also recovered from the bottom.
"Many of the pieces of wood were worked, and already several objects have been identified: parts of wooden buckets, a spatula or spoon, a spool, a rounded object like a knob or child's top," de Grummond said.
These and other finds -- from animal bones to numerous worked and unworked deer antlers -- suggest that cult activity took place at the well.
"Like other water sources in antiquity, the well was regarded as sacred," de Grummond said.
"Two Etruscan gods, named Lur and Leinth, were worshiped in a nearby sanctuary of Cetamura as gods of good fortune. They were probably the deities of the place," she added.
Offerings found in the well included hundreds of miniature votive cups, some 70 bronze and silver coins, and numerous pieces used in games of fortune, such as astragali, which are akin to jacks.
Among the most notable finds are 14 Roman and Etruscan bronze vessels, of different shapes and sizes and with varying decorations, that had been used to extract water.
One of the Etruscan vessels, actually a wine bucket, appears finely tooled and decorated with figurines of the marine monster Skylla, while another is adorned with a bronze finial of the head of a feline with the mane of a lion and the spots of a leopard. African heads, probably sphinxes, worked as handle attachments.
"This rich assemblage of materials and remarkable evidence of organic remains such as the grape seeds, create an unparalleled opportunity for the study of culture, religion and daily life in Chianti and the surrounding region," de Grummond said.