Topic: ancient Wine in Israel
Digging this summer at the ruins of a 1700 B.C. Canaanite palace in northern Israel, archaeologists struck wine.
Near the banquet hall where rulers of a Middle Bronze Age city-state and their guests feasted, a team of American and Israeli researchers broke through to a storage room holding the remains of 40 large ceramic jars. The vessels were broken, their liquid contents long since vanished — but not without a trace.
A chemical analysis of residues left in the three-foot-tall jars detected organic traces of acids that are common components of all wine, as well as ingredients popular in ancient winemaking. These included honey, mint, cinnamon bark, juniper berries and resins used as a preservative. The recipe was similar to medicinal wines used for 2,000 years in ancient Egypt and probably tasted something like retsina or other resinous Greek wines today.
So the archaeologists who have been exploring the Canaanite site, known as Tel Kabri, announced on Friday that they had found one of civilization’s oldest and largest wine cellars. The storage room held the equivalent of about 3,000 bottles of red and white wines, they said — and they suspected that this was not the palace’s only wine cellar.
“This is a hugely significant discovery,” said Eric H. Cline, a co-director of the Tel Kabri excavations, in a statement issued by George Washington University, where he is chairman of the department of classical and Near Eastern languages and civilizations. “It’s a wine cellar that, to our knowledge, is largely unmatched in its age and size.”
Dr. Cline and the other co-director, Assaf Yasur-Landau of the University of Haifa in Israel, described their findings Friday in Baltimore at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research. Another member of the team, Andrew Koh of Brandeis University, reported the results of the organic residue analysis, emphasizing the quantity of the samples and thoroughness of the testing. The researchers had to work fast to examine the residues before they became contaminated on exposure outside the storage room.
The archaeologists said that much of the palace, including the banquet hall and the wine storage room, was destroyed 3,600 years ago in some violent event, perhaps an earthquake. The wine cellar was covered with thick debris of mud bricks and plaster. That and the fact that no subsequent buildings were erected on top of the site have made Tel Kabri an inviting place for archaeological studies.
Team members said some older discoveries had been made before in tombs, but nothing on the scale of Tel Kabri. Patrick McGovern of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania said he had “reservations about a finding for which a detailed scientific report has not been published.” He said in an email that “the oldest chemically confirmed ‘wine cellars’ are those in the tomb Scorpion I of Egypt” about 3150 B.C.
“If we are making the claim only for ancient Canaan, and put the emphasis on ‘palatial,’ ” Dr. McGovern suggested, “the Kabri might well be the earliest.”
Dr. McGovern and other researchers have been able to re-create ancient wines and beers from the dregs from long-ago tastings. Dr. Koh said his group expected to produce a reasonable facsimile of the 1700 B.C. vintage favored by the palace elite in the land of Canaan.
In the Middle Bronze Age, from 2000 to 1550 B.C., Canaan was a confederation of city-states, the most important of which seems to have been Hazor, in a region that included what today is Israel, Lebanon, northwestern Jordan and parts of western Syria. At the time, Canaanites were farmers, merchants and early seafarers to Cyprus and the Aegean Islands. These were the centuries preceding the appearance of the biblical Hebrews. In the biblical narrative, God promised Canaan as a gift to Abraham; some modern scholars have stirred controversy suggesting that the early Israelites were in fact themselves Canaanites.
As for the ancient beverage, the presence of tartaric acid was “a surefire marker” of grape juice or wine, Dr. Koh said in a teleconference briefing with reporters on Thursday. Other recognized ingredients were consistent with winemaking recipes in ancient texts from the ruins of Mari, an early city on the Euphrates River in what is now Syria.
“They wrote about the recipes,” Dr. Cline said, referring to the Mari texts. “Here, for the first time, we believed, we have these crafted wines that verified the recipes beyond shadow of doubt.”
Thirty-eight of the 40 vessels contained recognizable wine residues. “This wasn’t moonshine that someone was brewing in their basement, eyeballing the measurements,” Dr. Koh noted. “This wine’s recipe was strictly followed in each and every jar.”
The current excavations began in 2005. Four years later, archaeologists uncovered spectacular frescoes from the Aegean Islands, and last year they found the banquet hall. This July, they started finding one after another of the ceramic jugs in the 15-by-25-foot storage room. Support for the project was provided by the National Geographic Society, the Israel Science Foundation, the Institute for Aegean Prehistory, the Bronfman Philanthropies, George Washington University, Haifa University and private donations.
More discoveries may be in the offing. Just days before the archaeologists wrapped up this summer’s work, they came upon two doors leading out of the wine cellar where they had been digging, one to the south, and one to the west. They will have to wait until the next excavation season, in 2015, to find out if the doors lead to additional storage rooms, possibly with more wine that the Canaanite connoisseurs of the grape never got to swoon over at their goat-meat banquets.
By John Noble Wilford
November 22, 2013