Monday, February 13, 2006

A Digression: Ethnic Pride

This story brought me back to my heady (and woozy) (and horny) days as an undergrad at the University of Minnesota majoring in anthropology / archaeology. One of the major papers I wrote during the course of my studies was about the Iron Age Greek wine trade with the cultures of Europe beyond the great empire's frontiers. Much of the story, like the one that will be pieced together in the coming years from the discovery in Pella, flows from the presence of a single artifact found in a luxurious tomb.

If archaeological geekiness bores you, go occupy yourself with this until I'm done. For the rest of you: I promise there's a payoff at the end.

Much is made of the hegemony of the Greek Empire that spread through conquest and subjugation. However, during the height of the empire's influence, Greek Culture surged beyond her official borders through trade. Formalized relationships formed throughout the known world through vigorous commodity exchange. To the denizens of northwestern Europe, few imports were more seemingly important than Greek wine.

Much, if not all of Greece's Iron Age commerce with the northwestern frontier cultures passed through the Greco-established port of Massalia, which is now Merseilles, France. Wine from the motherland, and from places elsewhere in the empire, entered through the port there, and went up the Rhone to the hinterlands inhabited by people the Greeks called Kelthoi, and whom the Romans later referred to as the Gauls. Along with the wine, the Greeks either traded or gave as gifts to their Kelthoi contacts accoutrements necessary to process and serve wine in a civilized manner. The landscape of central and northern France is littered with archaeological sites that yielded scads of amphorae (for transporting wine), wine serving sets (pitchers and goblets) and kraters (for mixing wine with water - more on that in a moment.)

One of the most significant finds regarding the formal trade relationships between the Greeks and the Kelthoi is the tomb site at Vix. This lavish burial site dated to circa 500 BC, contained, inter alia, a full wine service set and a massive krater (pictured at left). Given the adornment of the female occupant of the tomb and the elaborate and several items buried with her, it's a safe assumption that this was a rather important woman. Thus, the presence of the Greek wine-related objects among the objects in the tomb indicates a certain formal, high level commercial or political relationship between this particular band of Kelthoi and the Greeks. Furthermore - and more importantly for my purposes - the presence of the Greek wine paraphanalia suggests there wasa certain centrality or importance of the wine trade to the Kelthoi.

As mentioned above, kraters were used to mix wine with water to make it more palatable. The Greek wine at the time was a highly concentrated, high-alcoholic-content concoction that (probably) tasted similar to grappa. However, analysis done on the residue found in many of the kraters discovered from this period in the Kelthoi lands show (though not entirely conclusively - these sorts of tests can often yield inaccurate results) that the Kelthoi didn't dilute the wine. They drank it straight - and probably got shnockered fairly quickly. What was unspeakably uncivilized in the cosmopolitan Greek peninsula was standard operating procedure among the outlying bands in northern France.

One has to marvel at these hard-partying ancient folk with their iron constitutions and steel livers.

Many of you are aware that I have a significant amount of Sicilian blood running through my veins. Indeed, I outwardly exhibit many Italian traits: I'm hairy, swarthy, can cook, and have an enormous penis.

Ha ha. Just joking about the penis thing. It can more accurately be described as "well above average size."

But, actually I have even more Irish blood. I don't exhibit quite as many of those traits as I do the Italian ones. But I do have the temper, the hauntingly seductive eyes, the stereotypical thirst...

Which is why I burst with pride when I think about Vix and this relatively obscure (at that moment in history anyway) band of hard-drinking party guys and gals. These people, these Kelthoi, are better known in our vernacular now as "Celts" (and let's not forget the Romanticised "Gauls", which we now see used more for their descendants' language than the people themselves: Gaelic).

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