The unexpected interest of wet grapeskins

Those pondering how to reinvigorate the economy in 21st-century Britain may have been perusing the report recently published by Michael Heseltine. But I haven’t. I’ve been pondering how to reinvigorate the economy in 8th-century Italy, by perusing the report recently published by Paul Arthur and his colleagues (Arthur et al. 2012).

The promisingly-titled “Roads to recovery” addresses the obscure agrarian history of Salento – the “heel”of Italy and a western outpost of the Byzantine Empire – and finds “a community well on the road to economic recovery after two centuries of recession and monetary failure.” So how did they do it? How did these early medieval (or late antique) Apulian farmers set out upon the road to recovery, and how did Paul Arthur and his colleagues investigate the matter?

Reading the paper, you get the feeling that this is the tip of a research-iceberg, one that has been building up for years, through field survey, excavation, and a wealth of palaeoenvironmental analysis. The field surveys – collecting artefacts from the surface ploughsoil as an index of occupation history – suggest that new land was “opened up” from around the 8th/9th centuries onwards, while pollen studies suggest an increase in olive cultivation from around the same time.

Perhaps most intriguing for those (like me) interested in archaeobotany, however, is the account of an excavated well which contained some very nicely preserved waterlogged plant remains. These included all sorts of exotic fruity species that I could scarcely hope to find in my own Anglo-Saxon studies: olive, quince, Cornelian cherry. But most striking are the grape pips (over 1,200) and – remarkably – pressed grapeskins, indicative of grape-pressing for wine. It’s on occasions such as this that I applaud Antiquity’s policy of printing colour pictures, because they include a colour photograph of these grape remains. Admittedly, from an objective viewpoint, they’re pretty grotty. But as early medieval plant remains go, it’s an impressive sight.

So Arthur & co suggest that, from the 8th century onwards, the region saw a new emphasis on the production of cash crops like grape and olive, in a “dynamic landscape”. But it’s perhaps not all good news since, as the authors point out, Saracen raiders also came to the area at this time in search of slaves. The price of relative prosperity?

As with so many of the articles that I comment upon in this blog, “Roads to recovery” is rather beyond my expertise. I don’t really know the historical/archaeological context of the Mediterranean in the 8th/9th century. But I recommend this research as an example of how innovative approaches – combining multiple strands of evidence – can begin to reveal the untold story of early medieval agriculture.


Arthur, P., Fiorentino, G. & Grasso, A.M. (2012). “Roads to recovery: an investigation of early medieval agrarian strategies in Byzantine Italy in and around the eighth century”, Antiquity 86, pp.444-455.

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