Charred honeycombs discovered in Iron Age Northern Italy. A new light on boat beekeeping and bee pollination in pre-modern world

Publication date: July 2017Source:Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 83
Author(s): Lorenzo Castellano, Cesare Ravazzi, Giulia Furlanetto, Roberta Pini, Francesco Saliu, Marina Lasagni, Marco Orlandi, Renata Perego, Ilaria Degano, Franco Valoti, Raffaele C. de Marinis, Stefania Casini, Tommaso Quirino, Marta Rapi
In the ancient world beeswax and honey were of crucial importance not only for nutrition, but also for a range of activities including various artisanal practices. A rich body of iconographic and literary evidence has proven very informative, but archaeological data are strongly underrepresented in studies on ancient beekeeping. A multidisciplinary excavation project of the Etruscan trade center of Forcello near Bagnolo San Vito (Mantua province), led to the discovery of charred honeycombs in a workshop dated to 510-495 BCE. Morphoscopical, palynological and chemical analyses (IR, LC-MS, GC-MS) were conducted on these honeycombs and their associated materials (bee-breads and a mixture of melted honeycombs) in order to reconstruct beekeeping practices and the local environment. Palynological data indicate that honeybees were feeding on plants from both aquatic and ruderal landscapes. The palynological record from the bee-breads suggests the practice of itinerant beekeeping along rivers, an activity described by Pliny the Elder (Natural History, XXI.43.73) a few centuries later in relation to the town of Ostiglia (Mantua province) ca. 20 km downstream the investigated site. Hence, confirming the historical source, beekeeping in Iron Age Northern Italy appears to be characterized by a remarkably high degree of specialization. In addition, the pollen content of the melted honeycombs provides evidence for an unprecedented Vitis vinifera (grapevine) honey. The pollination syndrome suggests that bees fed on nectar of pre-domesticated or early-domesticated varieties of Vitis vinifera, confirming the archaeobotanical record of pips from Iron Age Northern Italy.