5 Million Year Old Whale Fossil Unearthed at the Castello Banfi Estate
In March of 2007, Paleontologists studying ancient maritime soils at the Castello Banfi vineyard estate in southern Tuscany unearthed the complete fossilized skeleton of a 5-million year-old Pliocene era whale, the largest and oldest such discovery in this part of Tuscany.
“Talk about terroir,” exclaimed Castello Banfi family proprietor Cristina Mariani. “We often find pieces and even whole shells of clams and mollusks, but this is far more significant. This discovery once again reminds us that the minerals and nutrients deposited millions of years ago are a big part of what makes this land ideal for nurturing noble grape varieties and giving complexity and flavor to our wines.”
The discovery was precipitated in early February by that of a dozen shark’s teeth in the surrounding area, likely shed by predators feeding on the whale carcass shortly after its death. Upon discovering the first vertebrae, paleontologists suspected they were isolated but as they prepared to move them they discovered more. By the end of the month, a total of 24 football-sized vertebrae were unearthed, along with accompanying ribs, lined up in correct anatomical position starting from the tail. By mid-March the skull and jawbones were unearthed, making the discovery even more significant because of the entirety of the skeleton.
“The state of preservation is ideal,” said paleontologist Simone Casati, who made the initial discovery on February 16 working under the supervision of Tuscany’s regional archeological superintendent. The group has discovered fossils of a dolphin in nearby Pienza and parts of smaller whales elsewhere in Tuscany, noted Mr. Casati, but this is likely to be the oldest by several million years.
Today the Mediterranean coast is nearly 20 miles away, but the whale dates back to a time when the area was part of the sea bed, resting under as much as 82 feet of water. “Because of the warm, almost tropical temperatures of the time, the sea was teeming with marine life,” said Mr. Casati. He noted that the cartilage disks were not completely fused to the bones, signifying that the whale was likely a young adult with potential for further growth at the time of its death.
Located at a bend in the cypress-lined road winding uphill from the village of Sant’Angelo Scalo to Castello Banfi’s hospitality center, the whale lays with its head pointed toward the medieval castle on the hilltop. The slope it rests on is concentrated with a rich, gray clay soil and is one of several spots on the estate speckled with fossilized and petrified seashells. “Over the years we have unearthed Roman and Etruscan artifacts, and now here is yet another significant layer that precedes those civilizations,” said Ms. Mariani-May. “It is quite fascinating, and, in a way, even humbling.” The estate lent support for this discovery on its property, including use of earthmoving equipment to remove top layers of soil so that paleontologists may focus on the immediate area surrounding the skeleton. Castello Banfi has received special permission from the government to house the whale in an expansion of its glass and ceramic museum, countering plans to move it to the regional capital of Florence.