Sixteen football-sized vertebrae belonging to a prehistoric whale dating back 5 million years ago were uncovered February 22 on the estate of Castello Banfi, in Montalcino, Tuscany. According to paleontologists, it could be the oldest whale ever found in this part of Italy, an area that was once covered with as much as 82 feet of water before the sea started its slow retreat millions of years ago to it’s current location some 18 miles away.
“Talk about unique terroir,” laughs Cristina Mariani-May, who was at Castello Banfi when the discovery was made.
The whale vertebrae (in foreground) with Cristina Mariani-May (left), her son John and Castello Banfi Estate Hospitality Project Director Elizabeth Koenig. Photo: Monica Larner
“We’ve uncovered Roman and Etruscan artifacts on the property but never something of this importance or size.”
Located at a bend in the road near the castle’s cypress-lined drive, researchers were already familiar with the site because of its rich concentration of marine fossils that appear like white specks against the gray clay soil. In the past, a shark’s tooth and clamshell fossils had been uncovered, but never anything this of this size. The whale is estimated to be 33 feet long, and is completely intact with the animal’s head pointed uphill towards the castle.
“The whale dates from the Pliocene era when the Mediterranean was at its biggest. Because of warm, almost tropical
temperatures at the time, the sea was teeming with marine life,” says paleontologist Simone Casati. “We find many, many fossils but each discovery always brings on a strong sense of satisfaction.”
Casati and his colleagues discovered a single vertebrae on February 16 and started to make plans to remove it when they realized it was just one in a complete series. When the excavation is complete, Casati says the skeleton will be moved to Florence.
Mariani-May was in Montalcino to present Castello Banfi’s 2002 Brunello di Montalcino and 2005 Rosso di Montalcino at the annual “Benvenuto Brunello” anteprima event. The nearly 7,000-acre estate produces 300,000 cases of top wines such as Brunello and Supertuscans.