Aged To Putrefaction: The Wine of Speyer

Many years ago, during their cremation phase, ancient Romans laid their noblest corpses to rest on wood pyres surrounded by an abundance of grave goods. Various gifts and possessions were installed near the deceased, and favorite pets were sometimes slain to serve as companions in the afterlife. Mourners called out the dead person’s name, a fire was kindled, and wine was later used to douse the ashes.

Eventually, this and similar practices were replaced by inhumation, or the interment of the body in a sarcophagus in a sepulchre, or the ground —it all depended on your status. One prevailing aspect of burial that persisted, however, was the inclusion of grave goods. There was nary a corpse that was sent to the other side without valuables and provisions in the form of objects, food, and wine. The assemblage was meant to sustain them on their celestial journey.

That’s why, when a 4th-century Roman nobleman and noblewoman’s shared tomb was excavated in 1867, it was not surprising that wine would have been left behind. What was surprising, was that a full, stoppered 1.5-liter bottle was still there, intact. The only one of ten. Interestingly, just six glass vessels were found in the woman’s tomb.

Named for the German city it was found near, the Speyer wine bottle was a thick, yellowish glass vessel with lovely dolphin handles and amphora-like shoulders. It contains what is believed to be wine likely made from regional grapes, mixed with herbs and stoppered with rosin. It’s dated between 325 and 350 AD.

While it has lost its ethanol content and has undergone a drastic composition change in the thousand and a half years since its creation, the wine’s preservation is attributed to the hot wax seal and a thick layer of olive oil, both of which served to keep the contents safe from exposure to air.

Germany’s Historical Museum of the Palatinate has safely housed the bottle for the last century, and historians have gone back and forth over whether or not they should crack it open and disturb its contents for science. Ludger Tekampe, the curator of the department responsible for its safekeeping, is hesitant to let air make contact with the stable liquid inside. Who knows what could happen to it? Many museum employees are too afraid to even handle the Speyer wine bottle, let alone take it into a lab. Tekampe is the only one who risks it, and even he rarely does. It was analyzed by the Kaiser’s chemists during the Great War, but remained unopened. Thankfully, it survived that one, and the next.

Scientists are relatively confident that the liquid has not morphed into something poisonous, however, if you were to drink it, it’s likely you wouldn’t keep it down for long.

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