1 Veget Hist Archaeobot (2011) 20: DOI /s ORIGINAL ARTICLE Sebesten fruits (Cordia myxa L.) in Gallia Narbonensis (Southern France): a trade item from the Eastern Mediterranean? Laurent Bouby Anne Bouchette Isabel Figueiral Received: 3 September 2010 / Accepted: 18 February 2011 / Published online: 1 March 2011 Ó Springer-Verlag 2011 Abstract Archaeobotanical studies carried out by rescue archaeology at Nîmes and Marseille (Southern France) provided evidence of Cordia myxa during the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. The fruit stones were found both waterlogged in domestic contexts and charred in a cremation grave (plant offering). Data from these finds and a survey of historical documents and archaeobotanical literature are combined here to discuss the origins and uses of these fruits in the western world. Keywords Cordia myxa Roman period Trade Mediterranean Introduction The recent discovery of Cordia myxa stones in Roman contexts from Gallia Narbonensis (Marseille and Nîmes) (Fig. 1) came as a surprise and raises a number of questions about the origin and use of these exotic fruits during the Communicated by M. van der Veen. L. Bouby (&) CNRS, Centre de Bio-Archéologie et d Ecologie, UMR 5059, UM2/CNRS/EPHE, 163 Rue A. Broussonet, Montpellier, France A. Bouchette INRAP Méditerranée, Archéologie des Sociétés Méditerranéennes, UMR 5140/CNRS/UM3/INRAP/DRAC, 561 Rue Etienne Lenoir, Km Delta, Nîmes, France I. Figueiral INRAP Méditerranée, Centre de Bio-Archéologie et d Ecologie, UMR 5059, UM2/CNRS/EPHE, 163 Rue A. Broussonet, Montpellier, France Roman period. As far as we know these finds, from the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D., are the only archaeobotanical records of this species in France. Genus Cordia (Boraginaceae) includes hundreds of tree and shrub species growing across the tropical and subtropical areas of America, Africa, Asia and Oceania. Only two of these species grow in the Mediterranean region, in northern Africa and in south-western Asia. These are C. sinensis Lam and C. myxa L. (Davis 1978; Greuter et al. 1984; Warfa 1990; Arbonnier 2002; Cappers 2006; Kislev 2008). Apparently C. sinensis is native in Egypt, in the Israel-Palestine area and in the Arabian Peninsula. The origin of C. myxa is less clear. Depending on the sources, it originates from tropical Asia, the Near- and Middle-East or Egypt. Typical C. myxa L. appears to be a cultivated plant, which became naturalized in the area stretching from southern Iran to northern and tropical Africa, including southern Anatolia, Chios, Rhodes, Cyprus, the Near-East, the Arabian Peninsula and the coastal areas of Egypt (Davis 1978; Kislev 2008). The sebesten (C. myxa) also called sebesten plum is a tree or shrub, ca m high, which grows on deep moist soils, such as river banks. The tree keeps its leaves for most of the year. These are broad, alternate, ovateelliptic shaped. The inflorescence carries numerous white flowers. Fruits are round to ovoid shaped drupes, about mm in diameter, arranged in clusters (Arbonnier 2002; Cappers 2006; Kislev 2008). Their white-yellow color turns blackish when dry. The pulp, very tough and mucilaginous, is edible and has a sweetish flavor. It can be consumed fresh, dry and pickled. According to the ethnohistorical sources, fruits of C. myxa have been eaten until recently by human communities in spite of their slightly astringent taste when fresh (Oudhia 2007; Kislev 2008). In tropical Africa, the ripened fruits are eaten fresh while the
2 398 Veget Hist Archaeobot (2011) 20: carried out in the port area, under the direction of A. Hesnard and M. Pasqualini (AFAN) (Hesnard 1994; Morhange et al. 1996). Nîmes, was a major city of Gallia Narbonensis (Breuil 2010) whose encircling rampart protected an area of ca. 200 ha. Rescue excavation work carried out by INRAP, along the length of a main city avenue prior to the construction of an underground car park, uncovered a prosperous residential area with its own well. Materials and methods Fig. 1 Location of Nîmes and Marseille (art work S. Ivorra, CNRS) green fruits are eaten either fresh or pickled. They are also used to flavour sorghum beer and food. The seed can also be eaten (Oudhia 2007; Arbonnier 2002). In Egypt, dried fruits are still sold today in the spice markets as sapistan and are used as medicine (Cappers 2006). In Egypt and the Near-East, the mucilaginous pulp is used to make a firstquality glue to catch migrating birds. According to Kislev (2008, p.134)cordia trees would have been grown in Egypt not so much for human consumption but to produce birdlime. This was extensively used to trap the numerous migrating birds on their route from Europe to Africa, their migration coinciding with the ripening season of Cordia fruits in Egypt. Sebesten plums have analgesic, astringent, anti-inflammatory, emollient, lubricating, softening and laxative properties. Recent scientific studies have confirmed some of these properties when applied to rats (Oudhia 2007). They are still widely used as traditional medicine for coughs, chest-complaints, inflammations of the digestive and urinary tract in tropical Africa (Oudhia 2007) and in the Near and Middle East (Kamal 1975; Isaacs and Baker 1994; Lev 2007; Lev and Amar 2008), and were also used in Western Europe, towards the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries (Barbier 1837; Mouchon 1848). In Africa, the fruit pulp is also employed to treat diarrhoea, dysentery, tuberculosis, wounds, ulcers, to calm abscesses and rheumatic pains and as a vermifuge (Arbonnier 2002; Oudhia 2007). Archaeological background Marseille (Gk Massalia), founded by the Phocaeans around 600 B.C., was a major city of the Western Greek world. Despite a decline in importance during the Roman period, its port went on playing an important role in the active Mediterranean trade, as shown by rescue archaeology Seven archaeobotanical samples were taken from the refuse deposits forming the infilling of the harbour of Marseille. These uniform deposits are mainly formed by refuse generated from port activities and nearby domestic dwellings. Samples are dated between the 1st and 4th centuries A.D. The exact volume of the samples is unknown but is estimated at 25l in total. Wet sieving of the sediments was carried out using 4, 2, 1 and 0.5 mm meshes. The stratigraphy of the well from Nîmes (PT 5053), ca. 15 m deep, was composed of seven upper dry levels and four lower waterlogged levels; 235 litres of sediments were sampled from the waterlogged levels. From these, 49 litres were wet sieved using meshes of 5, 2, 1, 0.5 and 0.2 mm while a 5 and a 2 mm mesh were employed for the remaining sediment. Further field work also uncovered a burial area (78, Avenue Jean Jaurès) comprising 43 tombs, including inhumations and cremations (excavated under the direction of V. Bel). From these only one, Grave 1055 (Fig. 2) located in the western area of the cemetery, provided evidence of C. myxa. This carefully assembled grave contained the remains of an adult (unspecified sex) together with grave goods such as one coin, vases, bowls, bottles, lamps, one plate, and perfume containers ( balsamaire ). The lowermost sediments covered a surface of 1.75 m m and were entirely wet sieved (5, 2 and 0.5 mm meshes). Results At Marseille, the majority of the plant remains from the Roman levels is waterlogged; charred material never attains 1%. Based on ca. 60,000 plant remains (estimated), 159 taxa have been distinguished. Assemblages identified apparently derive from domestic waste. Edible fruits dominate (Table 1), mostly as a result of the abundance of Ficus carica (fig) and Vitis vinifera (grape). Cucumis melo/sativus (melon/cucumber), Morus nigra (mulberry), Olea europaea
3 Veget Hist Archaeobot (2011) 20: evidence of diverse biotopes (cultivated fields, wasteland, dry areas, prairies, humid habitats). In the funerary ensemble from Avenue Jean Jaurès, the cremation grave 1055 provided a large amount of charcoal fragments; their analysis testifies to the use of Erica (heather), Quercus (deciduous and evergreen oak), Olea, Pinus pinea (pine) and possibly Fraxinus (ash) as fuel during cremation. Plant offerings were also present and include sparse fruit and endocarp remains of Olea, whole kernels, kernel fragments and cone scale fragments of Pinus pinea, endocarps of Prunus domestica ssp. insititia (damson plum), whole fruits and endocarps of C. myxa (Fig. 3) and endocarp fragments of Phoenix dactylifera (date palm). Funerary offerings from the other tombs of this burial ground also include cereals (Triticum sp. wheat), pulses (Vicia faba faba bean, Lens culinaris lentil, Lathyrus sp.) and other fruits (Vitis vinifera and Ficus carica). Allium sp. is also recorded. In short, Cordia remains available up to now include waterlogged material, two stones from Marseille, one from Nîmes (Parking Jean Jaurès) and charred material from Nîmes, 78 Av. Jean Jaurès (grave), with 3 complete fruits and 12 stones. Stone dimensions vary according to preservation (Table 2) but closely match those of modern C. myxa. Discussion Fig. 2 Nîmes, Avenue J. Jaurès, Tomb SP 1055 (photograph V. Bel, INRAP) (olive), Prunus avium (sweet cherry) and Rubus fruticosus (blackberry) are also well represented. Herbaceous cultivated plants such as Anethum graveolens (dill), Apium graveolens (celery), Coriandrum sativum (coriander) and Papaver somniferum (poppy) appear more sporadically. Wild herbaceous plants represent diverse habitats weeds, ruderals, plants from sandy/dry areas, meadows and pasture and humid areas. They are, however, small components of the whole assemblage. Two waterlogged sebesten endocarps were retrieved from two different samples (Fig. 3), one from the 2nd century A.D., the other from the 3rd. At Nîmes (Parking Jean Jaurès) well 5053 provided very abundant seed/fruit remains (more than 10,000) with 112 taxa. A single kernel of C. myxa was found in a secondary infilling, dated to the middle 2nd century end of the 3rd century A.D., in association with other cultivated/food plants, one of them imported, Ziziphus cf. ziziphus (jujube) (Table 1). Plentiful remains of Vitis vinifera, Ficus carica and Cucumis melo/sativus were recorded. A diverse assemblage of herbaceous and woody wild plants provides Origin of the sebesten fruits in Gallia Narbonensis: a trade item? The finding of C. myxa fruit stones in Roman Southern France is outstanding for Europe. C. myxa is not listed among the exotic foods reported by archaeobotanical studies in Roman Central and North Western Europe (Bakels and Jacomet 2003; Livarda 2011). No European or northern Mediterranean finding is reported in the archaeobotanical literature from 1981 to 2004 (http://www. archaeobotany.de/database.html). As far as we know no finds have been published since We must not forget, however, that in the central and western Mediterranean, archaeobotanical research of Roman sites lagged behind for a long time. Recent developments may soon result in more plentiful finds of Cordia as shown by the latest finds recorded from coastal sites. C. myxa has been identified in the port of Zaton (Croatie) during the 1st 3rd centuries A.D. (Sostaric et al. 2010, while Cordia sp. has been recorded by Rousselet and Newton in an urban context of the Late Republican port of Tarragona (Catalunya, Spain) (Rousselet unpubl.).
4 400 Veget Hist Archaeobot (2011) 20: Table 1 Most important edible fruits identified at Marseille (Jules Verne), and Nîmes (Parking J. Jaurès and Avenue J. Jaurès) X present, XX many, XXX very abundant Marseille Nîmes Nîmes Place Jules Verne Parking J. Jaurès Avenue J. Jaurès Age (century A.D.) 2nd 3rd 2nd 3rd 2nd Cordia myxa X X X Corylus avellana X Cucumis melo/sativus X XX Ficus carica XXX X Juglans regia X X Malus communis X Morus nigra X X Olea europea X X X Phoenix dactylifera X Pinus pinea X X XX Prunus avium X X Prunus domestica X Prunus domestica ssp. insititia X Prunus persica X X Punica granatum X Pyrus communis X Rosa sp. X Rubus fruticosus agg. X X Sambucus nigra X Sorbus domestica X Vitis vinifera XX X Ziziphus cf. ziziphus X Fig. 3 Cordia myxa stones from Gallia Narbonensis: 1. Marseille, Jules Verne (waterlogged); 2. Nîmes, Parking Jean Jaurès (waterlogged). 3. Nîmes, Avenue Jean Jaurès (charred). Photographs 1 A. Guey, CNRS, Centre d Anthropologie; 2, 3 S. Ivorra, CNRS, CBAE Considering our results one question must be asked: Could C. myxa have been cultivated in the western Mediterranean, during the Roman period? This possibility can not be dismissed without discussion despite the apparent present day absence of this species. Andres Laguna, a Spanish doctor, appears to have observed, in A.D. 1555, a large sebesten tree in Sicily (Garcia Sanchez and Ramon-Laca Menendez de Luarca 2001). Several species of Cordia (C. myxa excepted) are still today cultivated in the island (Rapisarda et al. 1997). Already during the Roman period, Pliny the Elder mentions that this species had been acclimatized in Rome by the 1st century A.D. Ancient authors seem to be well acquainted with this species and provide clear instructions concerning its cultivation. Pliny (H.N., XVII, 14) and Columelle (De re Rustica, XVII, 14) consider that any spiny shrub/tree could be used as rootstock. The first author also mentions that Cordia was grafted on rowan (H.N., XV, 12). Palladius, in turn, declares that the fruit stones are sown and the plants grafted on rowan or on blackthorn (Opus agriculturae, XXV). The emphasis given to grafting could be considered as a sign of the role played by this method in the acclimatization of this plant from the East, via the use of native rootstock adapted to the local conditions.
5 Veget Hist Archaeobot (2011) 20: Table 2 Dimensions of archaeological and modern Cordia myxa stones Origin Preserv. Length (mm) Breadth (mm) Thickness (mm) Number Archaeological specimens Marseille, Jules Verne W W Nîmes, Parking Jean Jaurès W Nîmes, Avenue Jean Jaurès C C C 12 1 C C Reference material Miqve Yisra el (Botanic Garden, Dried 11.8 (min 8.3/max 13.2) 9.03 (min 5.3/max 11.8) 6.13 (min 3.7/max 8.5) 50 Israël, Kislev 2008) Madras (Botanic Garden, Paris, MNHN) Dried 10.9 (min 9.5/max 11.6) 10.4 (min 9.3/max 11.2) 6.5 (min 5.6/max 8) 6 C carbonized, W waterlogged However, two important questions arise: How significant the acclimatization of the sebesten tree in Italy really was? Were the authors mentioned above really as familiar with this species as their texts suggested? Cappers (2006) has noted that Pliny sometimes mistakes the sebesten tree for the plum tree (H.N., XIII, 10.11, XV, 12). Moreover we must question the reliability of easy grafting between species with such diverse genetic characteristics. In Africa, the sebesten is apparently propagated by seeds and by cuttings (Oudhia 2007). Ibn Al-Awwâm, a Hispano-Muslim agronomist who lived in Andalucia during the 12th century explains, in his treatise Kitab al-filaha (VII, 33), that this shrub is not suitable for grafting, neither to receive, nor for application on other trees. We must however mention that this author also sporadically commits a few errors concerning the sebesten, for example confusing it with the rowan (El Faïz 2000). Although it is usually accepted that the sebesten was present in the gardens from medieval Andalucía (Harvey 1992) this type of mistake may suggest that this species was not really cultivated or was at least uncommon (Garcia Sanchez and Ramon-Laca Menendez de Luarca 2001). In the end, we are confronted with a similar situation to that from Roman Italy; indirect knowledge of the species, probably because it was not present locally in significant numbers. Moreover, in our assemblages, the very low number of finds of Cordia does not agree with the hypothesis of local cultivation. During Antiquity, the fruits used in Western Europe were more probably imported from the southeastern Mediterranean and Egypt, where C. myxa is today a common species. It is in this area that the archaeobotanical finds of Cordia are most frequent. C. sinensis is recorded in Egypt since the Pre-dynastic period (Fahmy 2005), while C. myxa is noted from the Middle-Kingdom onwards at least (Newton 2002; Newton et al. 2005; Cappers 2006), possibly since the Old Kingdom (Cappers 2006; Kislev 2008). The presence of branches and leaves in a tomb from the Theban necropolis is considered as evidence of the local presence of this species since the 12th dynasty (Kislev 2008). Cordia is further recorded in Hellenistic, Roman and Medieval sites (Van der Veen 1996, 2001, 2003; Cappers 1999, 2006; Newton 2002; Newton et al. 2005; van der Veen and Tabinor 2007; Kislev 2008). In the Near East, C. sinensis is identified during the Roman period (Kislev 1992) and C. myxa during the Islamic period (Kislev 2008). Further west, at Carthage, Cordia is noticed during the Byzantine period (Van Zeist et al. 2001). Reference to the trade of sebesten fruits from the East into Western Europe is found in medieval and modern documents. In Jerusalem, trade documents from the 11th and 12th centuries mention the purchase of sebesten fruits for export (Lev and Amar 2007). During the 14th century, fruits from the Near-East reached Barcelona via Sicily (Garcia Sanchez and Ramon-Laca Menendez de Luarca 2001). In the 18th century they are imported by the English, from Egypt and the Near East (Hill 1751) and also by the French (via the port of Marseille) from Sidon (Anonymous 1784). No written sources testify to this commerce during Antiquity but sebesten fruits could already have been easily transported. Written sources from the 3rd 5th centuries A.D. mention the preservation of sebesten fruits via drying before storage in barrels (André 1981, p. 87). They could also have been pickled, both preserving methods still in use today (Cappers 2006). The nature of the archaeological contexts also supports the hypothesis of trade. During the Roman period, Marseille was already a port open to the Mediterranean trade. Jean Jaurès is located in a wealthy part of the Roman city
6 402 Veget Hist Archaeobot (2011) 20: of Nîmes where other exotic species, probably imported, are also recorded (Phoenix dactylifera in the grave and Ziziphus cf. zizphus in the well). The existence of trade between Southern France and Northern and Eastern Africa during Roman times is already illustrated by characteristic archaeological remains, especially amphorae. Imports of oil and fish staples, especially from North Africa, already exist during the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. but increase significantly during the 3rd 4th centuries (Laubenheimer 1990). In Southern Gaul, the arrival of luxury goods, especially from the 4th/5th centuries onwards, also testifies to this commerce (Pieri 2005). The importation of sebesten fruits might be early evidence (2nd 3rd centuries) of this trade with the southern and/or eastern Mediterranean. Sebesten fruits may have followed the same routes used during the Middle Ages and Modern times. Potential uses of sebesten fruits in the Gallia Narbonensis: food, medicine, symbolism Why would sebesten fruits be imported into Europe, especially as shipping costs must have greatly increased their price? As already mentioned in the introduction, these fruits were used (in the distribution area of C. myxa) as food, medicine and in the production of birdlime. Imports of these fruits for the sake of making glue, is a hypothesis difficult to take into account. It would be better to import the finished product, as happened later on (Modern period), and the fruit stones would not be found. The Alexandrian or Damascus glue, as it was known, was imported from Egypt and the Near-East (Anonymous 1784; Kislev 2008). In France, this kind of glue remained rare, when compared with the use of the one obtained from Viscum album or the bark of Ilex aquifolium (Anonymous 1784; Mérat and De Lens 1837). We believe that this hypothesis can be ruled out. It is difficult to make a clear separation between food and medicinal uses. These two uses were usually associated both in Africa and in the northern Mediterranean area. Only recently has this separation become usual. It is possible that sebesten fruits might have been used in Gallia Narbonensis both as food and as medicine. We recall however that the documents mentioning the use of these fruits in Europe always give emphasis to their medicinal properties. These were already known during Antiquity. They are not mentioned by the ancient doctors, such as Discoride and Galien, but by the 4th 5th century Paulus Aegineta, Théodore Priscien and Caelius Aurelianus were acquainted with their medicinal properties (Hill 1751; André 1981). Already during the 1st century A.D., Pliny (H.N., XXII, 57) mentions a recipe associating boiled sebesten fruits, wheat bran, oil and dried figs to treat tonsillitis and throat ailments. In short, written sources seem to show that sebesten fruits were used in Rome more as medicine than as food (André 1981, p. 80). Again during the Modern period the medicinal properties of these fruits were the main reason why they were imported to Western Europe (Hill 1751; Anonymous 1784). Precisely in our region, their use was prescribed by the Montpellier Doctor Guilhem de Béziers (end 13th beginning 14th century A.D.) (Mc Vaugh et al. 2003). The two prescriptions by Guilhem de Béziers associate sebesten fruits and jujubes (Mc Vaugh et al. 2003). Around the end of the 18th beginning of the 19th century the importation of dried sebesten fruits to France appears to have declined due to their replacement by jujubes; this species, with similar therapeutic properties, was by then cultivated in Southern France, Italy and Spain (Barbier 1837, Mouchon 1848). We recall that, at Nîmes (Parking Jean Jaurès), Ziziphus cf. ziziphus is the single exotic fruit associated with Cordia. All the information gathered suggests that, in southern France, sebesten fruits were well known due to their medicinal properties, although they might have also been eaten. In fact, both at Nîmes (well) and at Marseille (port) Cordia is associated with other food remains. The presence of Cordia in the cremation grave from Nîmes, Avenue Jean Jaurès, should be regarded as direct evidence of its use as a plant offering. It could have been offered for its food/medicinal value, as an indication of high social status (being a rare exotic, probably expensive, fruit) or for its cultural/symbolic value. Seeds and fruits encountered as offerings in Roman burials can often be connected to symbolic values, known from Latin texts (Marinval 1993). In the grave from Nîmes Cordia is associated with typical Roman ritual fruits such as Phoenix dactylifera and Pinus pinea (e.g. Bouby and Marinval 2004; Kislev 1988; Marinval 1993, 2004). In Western Africa, C. myxa is still today charged with magical and religious meaning and used in mourning rituals (Arbonnier 2002). Such symbolism could also have existed in Egypt, where Cordia is mentioned in various funeral contexts until Predynastic times (Fahmy 2005). Endocarps are reported in Pharaonic (Thebes; 12th dynasty) and Roman (Douch, Hawara) funeral sites (Kislev 2008; Newton et al. 2005). The symbolic meaning of Cordia could then have crossed the Mediterranean Sea. We cannot rule out the hypothesis that the use (food, cultural or symbolic) of sebesten fruits in Southern Gaul would be connected to the presence of foreigners. Roman texts indicate that the presence of people of eastern origins was growing at the time in this part of the Gallia Narbonensis. Jewish, Greek, Syrian and Egyptian merchants were established in the towns of the Rhône valley, especially Arles and Marseille (Pieri 2005).
7 Veget Hist Archaeobot (2011) 20: At Nîmes, one of the dwellings from the prosperous residential area adjacent to the excavated well yielded a refined mosaic depicting stylistic elements with a strong connection with Northern Africa (Boislève et al. 2011; Houix et al. 2011). This might reflect the local presence of foreigners. However, no trace of this possible foreign presence has been detected in the tombs excavated (Bel, personal communication). A similar situation seems to characterize the therapeutic use of Cordia during the Middle Ages. During the 12th 13th centuries, the University of Montpellier is highly influenced by Jewish-Arab Medicine, partly as a result of the presence of Arab and Jewish individuals, some teaching, others translating the texts by the great Arab doctors (Harant and Vidal 1955). Guilhem de Béziers himself had a great regard for the Jewish-Arab Medicine (Mc Vaugh et al. 2003). Conclusions The unusual finds of C. myxa stones raise questions concerning the origin and use of these Eastern fruits in the Gallia Narbonensis during the 2nd 3rd centuries A.D. The development of archaeobotanical research in the Mediterranean region will hopefully provide new data towards a better understanding of the presence and spread of these fruits in the Northern Mediterranean. The diversity of our archaeological contexts in association with written documents allow us to suggest that sebesten fruits were imported from the South-eastern Mediterranean, Egypt or possibly North Africa. This constitutes early evidence of commerce, well documented by written sources for the Middle Ages and the Modern period. These fruits were probably used both as food and medicine. However, written documents suggest that imports may have owed much to their medicinal properties. The presence of these fruits and their possible cultural/symbolic use as funerary offerings could be connected with the presence of foreign people from the south eastern Mediterranean or northern Africa. However no archaeological evidence of this presence has been detected in the tombs excavated. Acknowledgments Thanks are due to R. Cappers, M. Kislev, J. Morales, C. Newton, M. van der Veen for the useful information provided for the identification of the Cordia stones. We also thank M. Pauthier and the Muséum National d Histoire Naturelle (Paris) for allowing access to herbarium specimens as well as C. Newton, O. Rousselet and R. Sostaric for allowing us to mention their findings of Cordia stones in Spain and Croatia. The help of S. Ivorra, V. Lelièvre and A. Guey (Illustrations) is also gratefully acknowledged. Bibliographical references and unpublished information have been provided by V. Bel, J.-Y. Breuil, M. Bonifay, J.-P. Darmon, S. Esclamanti, E. Lev and P. A. 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