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Fields & Applications Food, Beverage & Agriculture, Gas Chromatography, Mass Spectrometry

Booze, Barbarism and… Beeswax

So-called “consumption practices” were an integral part of early Celtic life. We know this from writings of the time – some of which describe the abuse of one particular consumable: alcoholic beverages. For example, Diodorus Siculus of ancient Greece apparently documented first-hand experience of this boozey buffoonery in his Bibliotheca historica: “The Gauls (Celts) are exceedingly addicted to the use of wine… and since they partake of this drink without moderation by reason of their craving for it, when they are drunken they fall into a stupor or a state of madness” (1).

Back in modern-day Europe, Maxime Rageot and colleagues set out to learn more about Celtic drinking habits and trading practices by analyzing 99 vessels thought to have been used for preparing and serving alcohol from Vix-Month Lassois – a Celtic site in Burgundy, France (2). The team sampled ceramic objects (16 of which were Mediterranean imports), extracted absorbed lipids, and performed GC-MS analysis.

Not only did the team find scientific evidence that early Celts were indulging in wine, but they also discovered that locally fermented barley and millet beers were also consumed from the vessels. Interestingly, olive oil and beeswax were also identified. Though the presence of olive oil indicates a Mediterranean import, the relevance of the beeswax is less clear. Coinvestigator Cynthianne Spiteri says, “Though we do not know the exact purpose, the presence of beeswax in numerous vessels suggests it was an important product, hinting at local bee management or even domestication.” The researchers believe it was most likely used either to seal pots or as a sweetener. Mead, a beverage produced by the fermentation of honey, is another possibility.

Asked how these samples stood the test of time, Spiteri highlighted two key aspects: the hydrophobicity of lipid molecules, and their protection as a residue in the porous ceramic. But not all aspects of the analysis were clear cut: “Some fats require further testing for correct classification, such as ruminant and non-ruminant adipose fats, whose degraded profiles can be very similar,” says Spiteri. “We use GC-combustion-isotope ratio MS for this.”

Next on the Spiteri’s hit list: the Heuneburg in Germany – a prehistoric hillfort by the river Danube. She hopes the time overlap between the locations will result in an insightful comparison, giving us an even tighter grasp on the trading (and consumption) practices of the early Celts.

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  1. D Siculus, “Bibliotheca historica”, V.26.3 (~36BCE).
  2. M Rageot et al., “New insights into Early Celtic consumption practices: Organic residue analyses of local and imported pottery from Vix-Mont Lassois”, PLoS One (2019). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0218001.
About the Author
Matt Hallam

I've always wanted a job that fosters creativity - even when I worked on the assembly line in a fish factory. Outside work, I satisfy this need by writing questionable fiction. The venture into science writing was an unexpected departure from this fiction, but I'm truly grateful for the opportunity to combine my creative side with my scientific mind as Editor of The Analytical Scientist.

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