New Study Finds All for Wine and Wine for All in Early Celtic Society

2,700 years ago, a love of imported wine united all classes in a German town—until haughty elites took it all for themselves

New Study Finds All for Wine and Wine for All in Early Celtic Society
Rustic but charming locally-made drinking vessels from the Heuneburg, 6th century B.C. (left) vs. fancy imported Greek ware found at the nearby Celtic site of Kleinaspergle, circa 450 B.C. (Landesmuseum Württemberg, P. Frankenstein / H. Zwietasch)
Nov 6, 2019

The Early Iron Age was a heady time at the Heuneburg, an ancient Celtic settlement, not least because all the townspeople, from lowly laborers to lofty lords, were toasting sweet, delicious wine imported from southern Italy or France. That's the picture that emerged in a study analyzing 133 ceramic vessels from the archaeological site in present-day southern Germany, anyway: of a blossoming city united by wine—until it wasn't.

Using organic residue analysis, a team of researchers led by Dr. Maxime Rageot of the University of Tübingen found evidence of wine in the form of tartaric acid residue in a variety of handmade ceramic goblets, beakers, bowls and jugs. “In the beginning, 600 B.C., wine was consumed everywhere in the plateau [area of the settlement] and outside the plateau from many different vessels," Dr. Philipp Stockhammer, one of the authors of the paper published in the journal Plos One, told Unfiltered. Many vessels had traces of honeycomb and beeswax, which might have been used to sweeten the wine.

The Heuneburg site
Imported drinking gear fit for a prince, found at a tomb at the Celtic site of Kleinaspergle, circa 450 B.C., not far from the Heuneburg (Landesmuseum Württemberg, P. Frankenstein / H. Zwietasch)

Stockhammer theorizes that when the Heuneburg-folk began building a mud-brick wall around the plateau, the barrier actually brought people together, with the bricklayers from below the plateau and their bosses who lived up on it finding maybe they weren't so different after all if they could enjoy a few goblets of wine together. But soon the Heuneburgers were importing other wares—and mores—from their supposedly more civilized Mediterranean trading partners. "Around 530 B.C., the plateau was transformed into an area for the elite, and we suddenly got the imported Greek pottery,” said Stockhammer—but only up on the plateau. Evidence of wine residue also became limited to the high-rent district. The wall of togetherness was destroyed in a fire, and by 530, a new, less friendly one had been built.

The Heuneburg site
The plateau of the Heuneburg site today … looking down (Victor S Brigola)

“Perhaps wine consumption became more conspicuous and possibly more restricted to imported and local wheel-made feasting dishes,” surmise the authors. “Certain actors within early Celtic society seem to have managed to transform the meaning of wine by successfully limiting its consumption to certain vessels and spaces.”

The Heuneburg was ultimately destroyed by a second fire and abandoned. By an angry, wine-deprived lower class? There is no evidence to suggest that, said Stockhammer, but "can you imagine telling Italians they can no longer eat spaghetti?"


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