Science: Chemistry at the Service of History

The Story:

An important piece of the story of the economic history of the Meditterranean basin has been supplied in recent months by a chemical analysis of residue on the inside of containers (amphorae) found in Sardinia and Pisa.

The Finding:

The amphorae held wine. That is no surprise: it is what amphorae, distinctively tapered clay vessels, were for.

What is more intriguing, the clays in the amphorae of different regions in the Mediterranean region are chemically distinct. The vessels were in effect ‘branded.’ So scientists have been able to determine that a lot of these vessels, found to have brought wine into various parts in that sea, came from Sicily during the period from the 9th into the 11th century when Sicily was part of the Muslim empire. (A Muslim army took Palermo in 836, driving out the Byzantines.)

Islamic Sicily, then, appears to have been an export center for wine. Pre-Islamic Sicily was not: it was chiefly an importer. Some of the researchers behind this conclusion are from the University of Rome, others from the University of York.

 Strange New Worlds:

Alcohol use is strictly prohibited in Islam. That did not prevent the Islamic community in Sicily from turning its attention to production and export.

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