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AGRUMED: Archaeology and history of citrus fruit in the Mediterranean

 | 
Véronique Zech-Matterne
, 
Girolamo Fiorentino

Macroremains of citrus fruit in Italy

Alessandra Celant and Girolamo Fiorentino

Full text

  • 1 Pagnoux et al. 2013.
  • 2 Van der Veen 2001; 2011; Van der Veen, Tabinor 2007.
  • 3 Fiorentino, Marinò 2008.
  • 4 Ciaraldi 2007; Fiorentino, Marinò 2008.
  • 5 Coubray et al. 2010; Pagnoux et al. 2013.

1The difficult preservation of Citrus carpological remains is probably the main reason why the presence of this genus was not documented in Italy until a few years ago. Indeed, the fleshy nature of its hesperidium does not facilitate good preservation, which has occurred in only a few sealed archaeological contexts: in anaerobic (poorly oxygenated) waterlogged environments (Rome),1 in extremely dry conditions (Egypt),2 after charring (Pompeii)3 or inclusion in mineral matter (Pompeii).4 In general, Citrus seeds from archaeological contexts are easily fragmented and for this reason they are sometimes unidentifiable. Additionally, the preservation processes may obliterate the diagnostic characters of cell patterns (shape, size and organization) and the seed’s keels. Another difficulty in identifying Citrus seeds to species level lies in their morphological variability. Sometimes, even the determination of fossil remains to genus level is difficult, as Citrus seeds may be confused with other taxa, for example Maloideae.5

  • 6 Cf. Luro et al., this volume.
  • 7 2013.
  • 8 Grasso et al., this volume.

2The comparison of fossil Citrus seeds with modern reference samples is complicated by a long history of anthropogenic activity: selecting and crossbreeding to obtain different cultivars of the same species.6 Only after the publication of the paper by Pagnoux et al.7 were a number of morphobiometrical criteria established, with the aim of distinguishing C. medica from C. limon in the archaeobotanical records; quantitative techniques for analysing the shape of the seeds (modern and archaeological) were employed to shed new light on the complex history of the genus.8 These criteria have allowed the identification of Citrus seeds from recent excavations in Italy (Pompeii and Rome), and from various archaeological contexts, both before and during the Roman period. These data confirm the important role of the Italian Peninsula in the diffusion of Citrus throughout the Mediterranean Basin in ancient times.

1. Citrus finds at Pompeii

  • 9 Fiorentino, Marinò 2008.
  • 10 2013.
  • 11 Grasso et al., this volume.

3Recently, five mineralised and one carbonised seed were recovered from a well in Pompeii, dated to the 3rd-2nd century BC, in the pre-Roman Samnite levels under the Roman Temple of Venus (fig. 1).9 They represent the most ancient macroremains of Citrus in the Italian Peninsula. These mineralised seeds are ovoid and spheroid in shape, with a ventral crest (fig. 2). The cells are arranged in regular fascicles with a ribbed pattern, longitudinally sinuous. Their dimensions in mm are as follows (length/breadth/thickness): min 6.3/3.1/2.3, max 7.0/4.2/3.5, average 6.7/3.7/x. Pagnoux et al.10 attributed them, most probably, to C. medica. Conversely, Grasso et al. used shape analysis to classify the seeds and attributed them to C. aurantifolia, with a very good probability.11 This conflicting determination may suggest the presence in Pompeii of an ancient cultivar based on a C. medica hybrid rather than C. medica or C. aurantifolia independently.

Fig. 1 - Pompeii. a) Plan of the Roman Temple of Venus; b) The well in the pre-Roman Samnite levels under the temple.

Fig. 1 - Pompeii. a) Plan of the Roman Temple of Venus; b) The well in the pre-Roman Samnite levels under the temple.

Fig. 2 – Pompeii. Seeds of Citrus medica (photograph V. Zech-Matterne).

Fig. 2 – Pompeii. Seeds of Citrus medica (photograph V. Zech-Matterne).
  • 12 Ciaraldi 2007: 113, fig. 43.
  • 13 Ciaraldi 2007: 139, fig. 61.

4More mineralised seeds of the Citrus type were found at Pompeii. One single mineralised seed originates from the second phase of the House of the Wedding of Hercules and Ebe and dates back to the first half of the 2nd century BC.12 A further pip came from a pit dug into the kitchen floor of the House of the Vestals, phase 3, and dates back to the second half of the 2nd century BC.13 The only known carbonised seed of Citrus came from the area of the Temple of Venus in Pompeii.9

  • 14 Comes 1879; Casella 1950.
  • 15 Jashemski, Meyer 2002: 101; Borgongino 2006: 31-32; De Carolis, this volume.
  • 16 Tolkowsky 1938: 100-101.
  • 17 Borgongino 2006: 35.
  • 18 Jashemski, Meyer 2002: 102

5The city of Pompeii has also yielded some frescoes and mosaics in which Citrus trees have been identified.14 The trees are depicted with realism and precision, which has led some to believe that their painters had seen the subject itself. In some cases, lemons or lemon trees can indeed be recognized on a wall painting from the House of the Fruit Orchard.15 On the other hand, some round, orange fruits are questionably argued to represent oranges, as in a mosaic from Naples16 and a fresco from Pompeii.17 In addition, wood remains of Citrus were identified by Hueber in the Villa of Poppaea at Oplontis near Pompeii,18 testifying to the presence of this tree in the garden of the villa, covered with the volcanic ash of the Plinian eruption.

  • 19 Bui Thi Mai, Girard 2014: 174.
  • 20 Coubray et al. 2010; Pagnoux et al. 2013.

6The presence of Citrus pollen19 from the Greek colony at Cumae near Naples also suggests an early distribution of Citrus in the Mediterranean Basin.20

7To summarize, the cultivation of Citrus trees seems to have been well established in the Campania region of southern Italy by the beginning of the 1st century AD, probably as the result of several cultivation attempts from the 6th-5th century BC onwards.

2. Citrus finds in Rome

8In the centre of Rome, in a votive deposit sealed under the floor of the Carcer-Tullianum, also known as the Mamertine Prison, fifteen waterlogged seeds and a fragment of skin belonging to Citrus were discovered (fig. 3).

Fig. 3 - Carcer-Tullianum (Rome). Localization of the Citrus macroremains from the votive deposit.

Fig. 3 - Carcer-Tullianum (Rome). Localization of the Citrus macroremains from the votive deposit.

9The Carcer was originally part of the Comitium in the Forum Romanum, just behind Capitoline Hill. It is now covered by the foundations of the San Giuseppe dei Falegnami Church (16th-17th century AD), which was built on the previous medieval Church of San Pietro in Carcere, named after the fact that St Peter is believed to have been jailed in a cave (Carcer) located under the church. Ancient sources report that from the Roman Republic (5th-4th century BC) to the 5th century AD this was a prison for the public enemies of the Roman state, prior to their execution. The Carcer was superimposed onto an earlier Archaic Period (8th-7th century BC) cave (Tullianum), which had been carved into the Servian Wall that protected the Capitolium. A spring of water was known there since antiquity. Recent excavations at Tullianum confirmed that the place had a sacral function at the beginning of the Roman Republic and evidenced the spring which filled it to a constant level of 13.60 m a.s.l. Close to the spring, at the north-east side of Tullianum, a votive deposit was found in 2010, in a small rectangular pit (25×54 cm) chiselled into the original rock floor. It was filled with clayey sediments and covered with a flagstone. Some ceramic fragments were also found in the sediment, along with uncharred plant remains and animal bones. In the sediment of the votive pit, 9 complete and 6 fragmented seeds belonging to Citrus were recovered. The studied material, forming one single sample of approximately 20 litres, was washed using sieves with 4, 2, and 0.5 mm mesh sizes. Plant remains were picked out and identified using a stereomicroscope. The seeds were uncharred, partly swollen because of waterlogging, and superficially covered by mineral matter (fig. 4).

Fig. 4 - Carcer-Tullianum (Rome). Seeds of Citrus limon (photograph A. Celant). Scale bar 5 mm.

Fig. 4 - Carcer-Tullianum (Rome). Seeds of Citrus limon (photograph A. Celant). Scale bar 5 mm.
  • 21 2013.

10The Citrus seeds from Tullianum are characterized by very distinct dorsal and ventral keels, irregular cell patterns and a lack of longitudinal striations, indicating that they most probably belong to C. limon, according to the morphological criteria established by Pagnoux et al.21 Their dimensions, measured using complete specimens, are as follows:

seed no.

length

breadth

thickness

1

8.43

5.59

4.21

2

9.70

5.88

4.61

3

10.49

5.88

4.51

4

9.90

4.51

3.72

5

7.74

4.90

3.72

6

9.90

6.17

4.41

7

10.00

4.12

3.43

8

13.45

4.90

3.53

9

10.19

5.10

4.12

average

9.98

5.23

4.03

11In addition, a fragment of fruit skin was recovered, which makes the genus determination of Citrus a certainty: SEM analysis of the seed surface showed the typical star-like features of the citrus fruit skin (fig. 5).

Fig. 5 - Carcer-Tullianum (Rome). a) Skin fragment of Citrus limon. Scale bar 5 mm; b) Detail under SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope). (Photographs A. Celant.)

Fig. 5 - Carcer-Tullianum (Rome). a) Skin fragment of Citrus limon. Scale bar 5 mm; b) Detail under SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope). (Photographs A. Celant.)

12A number of seed fragments, retrieved from the same votive pit, were AMS dated to 2003±45 BP (LTL8303A; 2σ calibration 120 BC-AD 90), most probably corresponding to the Augustan period (27 BC-14 AD), an age confirmed by the archaeological context.

  • 22 Grasso et al., this volume.
  • 23 Luro et al., this volume.

13The results of the seeds’ shape analysis from Rome22 indicate that the samples exhibits a certain degree of dispersion (perhaps due to the absence in the modern collection of varieties that might have yielded a less equivocal attribution), with a tendency towards the species C. aurantium/C. reticulata. As previously mentioned,23 these two species played a role in the origin of the modern lemon and it is therefore possible that the remains discovered in Rome also belong to a cultivar that was derived from these species, but which was not precisely identifiable against the modern C. limon.

14The citrus remains (seeds and the skin fragment) from the Forum Romanum currently represent the most conspicuous and best-preserved record of probable C. limon from the Italian territory, AMS dated to the Augustan Age. The votive archaeological context supports the hypothesis that Citrus was a precious fruit which was used in sacred ceremonies and aristocratic meals, as suggested by a mosaic of the Imperial Age, displayed in the National Roman Museum, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome (fig. 6).

Fig. 6 - Roman mosaic from Palazzo Massimo alle Terme with lemon and citron fruits.

Fig. 6 - Roman mosaic from Palazzo Massimo alle Terme with lemon and citron fruits.

3. Discussion and conclusions

15The morphobiometrical analysis of the seeds and the recognition of the testa surface and cell patterns suggest the presence of C. medica (citron) in Pompeii contexts and Climon (lemon) in Rome. These are the first archaeobotanical records of the two taxa in Italy. They shed new light on the spread of citrus fruits in the Mediterranean.

16The finds of well-preserved mineralized seeds from Pompeii represent the oldest record so far of C. medica in Italy (3rd-2nd century BC) and the Mediterranean region; while the citrus remains (seeds and the skin fragment) from the Forum Romanum currently represent the most conspicuous and best-preserved record of probable C. limon from the Italian territory.

17Nevertheless, the introduction of Citrus to Italy might be much older as evidenced among others by pollen grains and the chemical analyses of organic residues dating back to at least the 6th century BC in Sardinia and the Campanian coast. This suggests the hypothesis of an early introduction from eastern Mediterranean countries, potentially by Phoenician settlers; however, Citrus probably remained a rare fruit even when its diversity began to increase, from the Roman times onwards.

Bibliography

Borgongino 2006: M. Borgongino, Archeobotanica. Reperti vegetali da Pompei e dal territorio vesuviano, Roma.

Bui Thi Mai, Girard 2014: Bui Thi Mai, M. Girard, Citrus (Rutaceae) was present in the western Mediterranean in antiquity, in A. Chevalier, E. Marinova, L. Peña-Chocarro (eds.), Plants and people: Choices and diversity through time, Oxford-Philadelphia, p. 170-174.

Casella 1950: D. Casella, La frutta nelle pitture pompeiane, in Pompeiana. Raccolta di studi per il II centenario degli scavi di Pompei, Napoli, p. 355-386.

Ciaraldi 2007: M. Ciaraldi, People and plants in ancient Pompeii. A new approach to urbanism from the microscope room: The use of plant resources at Pompeii and in the Pompeian area from the 6th century BC to AD 79, London.

Comes 1879: O. Comes, Illustrazione delle piante rappresentate nei dipinti pompeiani, in Pompei e la regione sotterrata dal Vesuvio nell’anno LXXIX, Napoli, p. 177-250.

Coubray et al. 2010: S. Coubray, V. Zech-Matterne, A. Mazurier, The earliest remains of a Citrus fruit from a western Mediterranean archaeological context? A microtomographic-based re-assessment, Comptes Rendus Palevol, 9, p. 277-282.

Fiorentino, Marinò 2008: G. Fiorentino, G. Marinò, Analisi archeobotaniche preliminari al Tempio di Venere di Pompei, in P.G. Guzzo, M.P. Guidobaldi (eds.), Nuove ricerche archeologiche nell’area vesuviana (scavi 2003-2006), Roma, p. 527-528.

Jashemski, Meyer 2002: W.F. Jashemski, F.G. Meyer (eds.), The natural history of Pompeii, Cambridge.

Pagnoux et al. 2013: C. Pagnoux, A. Celant, S. Coubray, G. Fiorentino, V. Zech-Matterne, The introduction of Citrus to Italy, with reference to the identification problems of seed remains, Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, 22, p. 421-438.

Tolkowsky 1938: S. Tolkowsky, Hesperides. A history of the culture and use of citrus fruits, London.

Van der Veen 2001: M. Van der Veen, The botanical evidence, in V.A. Maxfield, D.P. Peacock (eds.), Survey and excavation: Mons Claudianus 1987-1993, 2. The excavations, Part 1, Cairo, p. 174-247.

Van der Veen 2011: M. Van der Veen, Consumption, trade and innovation: Exploring the botanical remains from the Roman and Islamic ports at Quseir al-Qadim, Egypt, Frankfurt.

Van der Veen, Tabinor 2007: M. Van der Veen, H. Tabinor, Food, fodder and fuel at Mons Porphyrites: the botanical evidence, in D.P. Peacock, V.A. Maxfield (eds.), The Roman imperial quarries. Survey and excavations at Mons Porphyrites 1994-1998, 2. The excavations, London, p. 83-142.

Notes

1 Pagnoux et al. 2013.

2 Van der Veen 2001; 2011; Van der Veen, Tabinor 2007.

3 Fiorentino, Marinò 2008.

4 Ciaraldi 2007; Fiorentino, Marinò 2008.

5 Coubray et al. 2010; Pagnoux et al. 2013.

6 Cf. Luro et al., this volume.

7 2013.

8 Grasso et al., this volume.

9 Fiorentino, Marinò 2008.

10 2013.

11 Grasso et al., this volume.

12 Ciaraldi 2007: 113, fig. 43.

13 Ciaraldi 2007: 139, fig. 61.

14 Comes 1879; Casella 1950.

15 Jashemski, Meyer 2002: 101; Borgongino 2006: 31-32; De Carolis, this volume.

16 Tolkowsky 1938: 100-101.

17 Borgongino 2006: 35.

18 Jashemski, Meyer 2002: 102

19 Bui Thi Mai, Girard 2014: 174.

20 Coubray et al. 2010; Pagnoux et al. 2013.

21 2013.

22 Grasso et al., this volume.

23 Luro et al., this volume.

List of illustrations

Title Fig. 1 - Pompeii. a) Plan of the Roman Temple of Venus; b) The well in the pre-Roman Samnite levels under the temple.
URL http://books.openedition.org/pcjb/docannexe/image/2194/img-1.jpg
File image/jpeg, 3,1M
Title Fig. 2 – Pompeii. Seeds of Citrus medica (photograph V. Zech-Matterne).
URL http://books.openedition.org/pcjb/docannexe/image/2194/img-2.jpg
File image/jpeg, 1,7M
Title Fig. 3 - Carcer-Tullianum (Rome). Localization of the Citrus macroremains from the votive deposit.
URL http://books.openedition.org/pcjb/docannexe/image/2194/img-3.jpg
File image/jpeg, 1,1M
Title Fig. 4 - Carcer-Tullianum (Rome). Seeds of Citrus limon (photograph A. Celant). Scale bar 5 mm.
URL http://books.openedition.org/pcjb/docannexe/image/2194/img-4.jpg
File image/jpeg, 1,2M
Title Fig. 5 - Carcer-Tullianum (Rome). a) Skin fragment of Citrus limon. Scale bar 5 mm; b) Detail under SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope). (Photographs A. Celant.)
URL http://books.openedition.org/pcjb/docannexe/image/2194/img-5.jpg
File image/jpeg, 3,9M
Title Fig. 6 - Roman mosaic from Palazzo Massimo alle Terme with lemon and citron fruits.
URL http://books.openedition.org/pcjb/docannexe/image/2194/img-6.jpg
File image/jpeg, 492k

Author(s)

Laboratory of Palaeobotany and Palynology, Department of Environmental Biology, Sapienza University of Rome, Piazzale Aldo Moro, 5 – 00185 Rome (Italy); alessandra.celant@uniroma1.it

Laboratory of Archaeobotany and Palaeoecology, Department of Cultural Heritage, University of Salento, Via D. Birago, 64 – 73100 Lecce (Italy); girolamo.fiorentino@unisalento.it

© Publications du Centre Jean Bérard, 2017

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