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Brassicaceae seed oil identified as illuminant in Nilotic shells from a first millennium AD Coptic church in Bawit, Egypt

TitleBrassicaceae seed oil identified as illuminant in Nilotic shells from a first millennium AD Coptic church in Bawit, Egypt
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2008
AuthorsRomanus, K, Van Neer, W, Marinova, E, Verbeke, K, Luypaerts, A, Accardo, S, Hermans, I, Jacobs, P, De Vos, D, Waelkens, M
JournalAnalytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry
AbstractBurned greasy deposits were found inside shells of the large Nile bivalve Chambardia rubens, excavated in an eight- to tenth- century AD church of the Coptic monastery of Bawit, Egypt, and supposedly used as oil lamps. The residues were subjected to a combination of chromatographic residue analysis techniques. The rather high concentrations of unsaturated fatty acids, as analysed by gas chromatography (GC) in the methylated extract, suggest the presence of a vegetal oil. Analysis of the stable carbon isotopes ($δ$13C values) of the methyl esters also favoured plants over animals as the lipid source. In the search for biomarkers by GC coupled to mass spectrometry on a silylated extract, a range of diacids together with high concentrations of 13,14-dihydroxydocosanoate and 11,12- dihydroxyeicosanoate were found. These compounds are oxidation products of erucic acid and gondoic acid, which are abundantly present in seeds of Brassicaceae plants. Liquid chromatography coupled to mass spectrometry analysis showed low concentrations of unaltered triglycerides, but revealed sizeable amounts of triglycerides with at least one dihydroxylated acyl chain. The unusual preservation of dihydroxylated triglycerides and $\alpha$,$ømega$-dicarboxylic acids can be related to the dry preservation conditions. Analysis of the stereoisomers of the dihydroxylated fatty acids allows one to determine whether oxidation took place during burning of the fuel or afterwards. The results prove that the oil of rapeseed (Brassica napus L.) or radish (Raphanus sativus L.) was used as illuminant in early Islamic Egypt, and that not only ceramic lamps but also mollusk shells were used as fuel containers.
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