PAUL SIEVEKING finds a new resting place for St Nicholas and evidence of a very early vintage
CONCRETE TO LAST
The reason why ancient Roman concrete sea walls have lasted more than two millennia while modern concrete, embedded with steel, crumbles within decades has long puzzled engineers. Pliny the Elder, writing in AD 79, noted that concrete structures in ancient harbours “became a single stone mass, impregnable to the waves, and every day stronger,” despite being battered constantly by seawater. Now US scientists think they have found the answer: when saltwater mixes with the volcanic ash and lime used by the Romans, it leads to the growth of interlocking minerals, making the concrete virtually impenetrable.
Roman engineers made concrete by mixing volcanic ash with lime and water to make a mortar, and then added chunks of volcanic rock. The combination produced what is called a pozzuolanic reaction, named after the city of Pozzuoli in the Bay of Naples, prompting the formation of crystals in the mixture as it sets. These are made of minerals such as phillipsite and aluminous tobermorite. The same reaction happens in nature, and clumps of natural cement can be found in volcanic areas, which is possibly what gave the Romans the idea. The exact recipe for Roman concrete has been lost, but the team, led by Marie Jackson, a geology research professor at the University of Utah, is working on a cement that will allow sea defences to last for centuries. D.Telegraph, Guardian, 4 July 2017.
HUNT FOR ST NICHOLAS
Archæologists believe they have located the tomb of the original Father Christmas – St Nicholas – beneath a church in Demre, Antalya, built on the ruins of ancient Myra, birthplace of the fourth century bishop. Cemil Karabayram, head of Antalya’s monument authority, said the crypt was discovered in the centre of the Byzantine church during an electronic survey. “We believe this shrine has not been damaged at all, but it is quite difficult to get to as there are mosaics on the floor,” he said. Excavation work will allow scholars to access the temple grounds below the church to determine whether Nicholas’s body is there.
St Nicholas of Myra was known for his generosity towards children. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, a practice celebrated on his feast day, 6 December. At the time of his death in AD 343, he was interred where the church at Demre now stands. This was built to host his tomb and was completed in AD 520. It was previously thought that merchants carried out a pious theft in 1087, smuggling the saint’s bones to Bari in Italy. Christians still visit the site of what was thought to be the final resting place of the stolen bones in Bari’s Basilica di San Nicola. Some of the bones ended up in Venice, and a fragment of pelvis kept in St Martha of Bethany church in Illinois and said to belong to St Nicholas has recently been carbondated in Oxford to the fourth century AD. Of course, this doesn’t prove that the pelvis belongs to the saint, merely that such an identification is not impossible. However, based on local documents and ceramics, Turkish experts are now claiming the bones removed in 1087 belong to another local priest rather than the celebrated bishop. D.Telegraph, Guardian, 5 Oct; Metro, D.Express, 7 Dec 2017.
WORLD’S OLDEST WINE
Earthenware jars from about 6000 BC, found south of Tbilisi in Georgia, have revealed the earliest evidence of grape wine-making. Some of the jars bore images of grape clusters and a man dancing. The finds were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). “We believe this is the oldest example of the domestication of a wild-growing Eurasian grapevine solely for the production of wine,” said co-author Stephen Batiuk, a senior researcher at the University of Toronto. “Wine is central to civilisation as we know it in the West. As a medicine, social lubricant, mind-altering substance and highly valued commodity, wine became the focus of religious cults, pharmacopoeias, cuisines, economies and society in the ancient Near East.”
The pottery jars were discovered in two Neolithic villages, called Gadachrili Gora and Shulaveris Gora, about 30 miles (50km) south of Tbilisi. Telltale chemical signs of wine were discovered in eight jars, the oldest one dating from about 5,980 BC. Large jars called qvevri, similar to the ancient ones, are still used for wine-making in Georgia. Mr Batiuk said the wine was probably made in a similar way to the qvevri method today “where the grapes are crushed and the fruit, stems and seeds are all fermented together”.
Previously, the earliest evidence of grape wine-making had been found in the Zagros Mountains of Iran in 1968 and dated to 5,400-5,000 BC. In 2011, a wine press and fermentation jars from about 6,000 years ago were found in a cave in Armenia [ FT278:23]. Organic residue in storage jars found in a cave in Sicily in 2012 showed that wine was made here 6,000 years ago. The world’s earliest non-grape based wine is believed to be a fermented alcoholic beverage of rice, honey and fruit found in China and dating to about 7,000 BC. Guardian, 30 Aug; BBC News, 13 Nov 2017.
ABOVE: St Nicholas church in Demre, Antalya. LEFT: One of the earthenware jars from Tbilisi.