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CSI Deep Water: Finding Invisible Clues to Ancient Greek Culture

October 1, 2007

Like forensic investigators hunting for strands of DNA at a crime scene, Maria Hansson and Brendan Foley have found a way to detect archaeological clues that are invisible to the naked eye. Hansson, a molecular biologist from Lund University (and former postdoctoral scholar at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), and Foley, a deep-sea archaeologist with joint appointments at WHOI and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have developed a genetic technique to determine the original contents of amphoras, the ceramic vessels often used for transporting and storing goods in the ancient world.

Foley was co-leader of a 2005 expedition with the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research to survey a 2,400-year-old shipwreck off the Greek island of Chios. Foley’s Greek colleagues recovered two amphoras from the wreck, each of which appeared to be empty—cleaned out by seafloor creatures and microbes over the centuries. But Hansson suggested that perhaps modern DNA sampling techniques could be used to detect residues of the original contents. They scraped the insides of the amphoras, performed DNA analysis, and found genetic traces of olive oil, oregano, and mastic (an ancient wine preservative). The technique promises to teach researchers more about what crops and foodstuffs were traded in the ancient Mediterranean, as well as when, where, and to whom they were traded. The findings have been published on the web site of the Journal of Archeological Science, with a printed version expected in the coming months.

Foley and Hansson are now proposing to examine as many as 40 amphoras in the Greek collection. Foley is also working with colleagues at MIT and WHOI’s Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering Department to develop technologies that could allow marine archaeologists to detect the chemical composition of seafloor remains without having to raise them out of the water or disturb the sites.

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