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Molecular archaeology

The most ubiquitous ancient artifacts recovered from shipwreck sites in The Mediterranean are the ceramic transport jars, amphoras. However, determining original contents of the today seemingly empty amphoras has been problematic, aided only occasionally by physical evidence (e.g. olive pits, resins) found inside excavated jars.

In collaboration with researchers from USA (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Dr. Brendan Foley) and Greece (Hellenic Ministry of Culture, Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, Athens) I perform molecular analyses on amphoras brought up from the Mediterranean Sea floor. Some of the amphoras are >2,000 years old.

Methods

I use DNA markers designed from the chloroplast to test for ancient plant DNA fragments trapped inside an amphoras’ ceramic matrix. Our analyses are the first to demonstrate that DNA fragments can be successfully extracted from the walls of amphoras recovered from ancient underwater shipwreck sites. Our recent results also shows that physical scrapings of the interior can be avoided during sampling – instead, we can use swabs soaked in lysis buffer to trap material. This method leaves no physical ‘scar’ inside the amphora.

Researchers studying amphoras

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