Near East’s oldest and largest wine cellar unearthed, with a festive surprise

By Sean Savage/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: The ancient wine jugs unearthed at Tel Kabri in Israel. Archeologists  describe the discovery as the “oldest and largest palatial wine cellar” ever found in the Near East. Credit: Brandeis University.

A team of archeologists has found what it describes as the “oldest and largest palatial wine cellar” ever discovered in the Near East, in the process unearthing some festive and even psychedelic surprises about the Bronze Age. 

The cellar was discovered in a ruined palace near the sprawling Canaanite city in northern Israel called Tel Kabri. The site itself dates back to around 1,700 BCE and is located near Israel’s modern-day winemaking region in the Galilee and Golan Heights.

“We found at least 40 large one-meter tall jugs that all hold at least 50 liters of wine, totaling 2,000 liters,” Dr. Andrew Koh of Brandeis University, one of the leading archeologists on the discovery, told JNS.org. 

Koh, an expert in archeological chemistry and classical studies, said the team, which also included Dr. Eric Cline for George Washington University and Assaf Yasur-Landau from the University of Haifa, chemically analyzed each of the jugs.

They found that the jugs contained traces of tartaric acid and syringic acid, both common in wine. But they included several other ingredients. 

“Not only did they have wine, they also had a craftsmanship to them. This is not just your normal wine; there is some degree of uniqueness to them,” Koh said.

Part of this uniqueness included wine fortified with honey, mint, cinnamon bar juniper berries, and even special cedar tree resins—possibly giving the wine some psychotropic properties. This is similar to medicinal wine found in ancient Egypt.

Koh said that for the most part, the wine and ingredients were locally sourced. 

“The wine, the honey and the various botanical ingredients all look like they come from the Galilee and Golan region, with the resin oils coming from the famous cedar trees in nearby Lebanon,” he said. 

The earliest-known wine production dates back nearly 7,000 to 8,000 years in modern-day Iran and Georgia. Archeologists have uncovered numerous ancient wineries in the Middle East and Mediterranean region.

Koh said that what makes this find unique, other than its size, is that it provides a “completely different glimpse into ancient feasting and drinking.” 

“The find gives us an insight in the cultural and economic aspects of near eastern Canaanite culture in the Middle Bronze Age. For instance the palace, in this case, acted very much like a large household,” he said.

The palace itself stood for more than 300 years and covered an area that encompassed 1.5 acres and was two stories high. In previous years, excavators also discovered a massive banquet hall that could hold more than 500 people. 

Koh said that the jugs of wine likely belonged to a king or ruling elite, and that they would be used to throw a large communal party for family and local elites. 

“It looks like they would all be having a really good time there,” Koh joked. 

As for how the wine would taste, Koh speculated that it might be similar to the Greek wine Restina, which has been produced for thousands of years in Greece and uses pine resins as a preservative. 

These ancient drinks have also been recreated. The popular Delaware-based beer brewery Dogfish Head is famous for recreating ancient beers based on chemical analysis from archaeological sites, including from the tomb of King Midas. JNS.org asked Koh if his team would be interested in a similar endeavor. 

“Yes, we would very much be willing to collaborate with anybody,” he said. “As an archeologist, I am curious by nature, I would definitely volunteer to be the first to try it.”

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Posted on November 25, 2013 and filed under Features, Israel.