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Were these giant carved stones used to make ancient Italian wine?

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Rocky artifacts may offer insight into an Etruscan industry

INTRO: One crisp winter day in 2004, Uran Pelushi was walking along the banks of the Vivo, a creek in the Seggiano Valley in southern Tuscany. Unexpectedly, he noticed an object jutting from the leaf-covered earth.

At first, it resembled one of the many charcoal-colored tuff rocks that cover the ground in the area. But as he cleared away the weeds around it, a more complex structure started to emerge. What he uncovered was a mossy stone that had been carved to create two basins, each about two feet across and connected by a small channel. Immediately, Pelushi knew he had to make a call. “I think I have found one of those stones,” he told his boss, British winemaker Charlotte Horton, who had asked him to report sightings of any unusual rocks.

Horton first learned about the stones in 2002 on a walk with friend and local farmer Moreno Filoni. “I was immediately curious about them and asked Moreno what they were,” she recalls. Filoni, like many locals, had some vague notions about the basins, which locals call pestarole. It was commonly thought the Etruscans, the people who inhabited Tuscany and Latium before the Romans, probably excavated volcanic stones for agricultural purposes. “Many people thought they were used to water animals,” Horton says. “But I wasn’t convinced.”

All of the stones she had encountered were right by rivers, something that challenged the watering option—animals did not need man-made basins to drink. The stones were also tilted, suggesting that they were used to process something in the upper basin that would flow to the lower basin. “As a winemaker, my instinct was that they were used to make wine,” Horton says.

Two years later, she turned her instinct into practice. Together with a group of volunteers, she transported grapes from her vineyards to the nearby “winemaking stones,” as she now calls them. A video from the time shows a group of enthusiastic harvesters stomping their bare feet on the plum-colored grapes, placed in the upper basin, while others collected the must, a combination of juice and pulp, from the lower basin with buckets.

This simple, intuitive technique offers insight into how the Etruscans may have made their wine. Etruscans are widely believed to have taught winemaking to the Romans and the people living in modern-day France, making their practices the foundations of both Italian and French wine. Winemakers around the world are thus fascinated in the possibility of understanding more about their techniques.

But as Horton soon found out, finding more about the [u]pestarole[/u[ is not an easy feat. ”There is very limited research on these structures,” says Cinzia Loi, professor of archeology at the University of Sassari, and the author of the only academic study on the stones. Loi looked at 145 wine stones mostly in the areas of Guilcer and Barigadu, in rural Sardinia. “It’s very hard to find evidence that can prove how they were used,” she says... (MORE - details)

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