The barrel was most likely invented in the Balkan area. Even though Herodotus mentions palm-wood casks used in shipping Armenian wine to Babylon in Mesopotamia, the barrel as we know it today was most likely developed by the Celts. Around 350 BC they were already using watertight, barrel-shaped wooden containers that were able to withstand stress and could be rolled and stacked. The name tonneau (also called barrique) comes the Latin Dolium which means rounded.
The technique of bending wood into shape through heating they most likely borrowed from boat building, where it was used to bend planks for ship's hulls as early as the ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians. The barrel, apart of serving as a recipient for wine and other liquids such as water, vinegar and oil, was also used for the storage and transport of precious metals, nails, powders, ocher and sulfur, as well as for the preservation of fish, olives, mustard and other sweet, salted or pickled foods.
In Asia and Europe, liquids like oil and wine were mostly carried in earthenware vessels. The Greeks and Romans kept their wines and other liquids in large vases called Cadus or Amphorae, sealed with pine resin.
The Romans began to use barrels in the 3rd century AD, as a result of their commercial and military contacts with the Gauls.
Towards the end of the era of Augustus, the Allobroges of the Rhone valley had selected a vine species that was acclimatized to their region. This "Allobrogic" variety bore frost resistant grapes, thus pushing back the northern limits of vine cultivation by several hundreds of kilometers. At the same time, in the plains of Aquitaine, in the Gaillac region, another vine variety - "Biturica" - made the Bordeaux prosper.
The wines from the Gallic province were highly appreciated in Rome, and the progression of the vine worried the Romans to such an extent that, in 92 AD, the emperor Domitien decided to destroy the Gallic vineyards. Around the same time, Pliny the Elder noted - in the regions near the Alps - the appearance of an exceptional recipient specially conceived to hold and mature wine: the wooden barrel, which became inseparably associated with wine, from its fermentation to its transport. Archaeological research has found cooper's tools and wooden seals dating from as early as 100 BC
For nearly 2,000 years barrels were the most convenient form of shipping or storage container for those who could afford them. All kinds of bulk goods, from nails to gold coins, were stored in them. Bags and most crates were cheaper, but they were not as sturdy and they were more difficult to manhandle for the same weight. The use of barrels for the transportation of bulk goods slowly lost its importance in the 20th century with the introduction of pallet-based logistics and containerization. However, they are still of great importance in the aging of wines and spirits.
Starting in the late 19th century, barrels were largely superseded by corrugated fiberboard boxes for storage and transport of dry goods, and in the mid 20th century, steel drums began to be used for the storage and transport of fluids such as water, oils and hazardous waste.
The current standard volume for barrels for chemicals and food is 55 US gallons (46 imp gal; 208 L).
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