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Ancient wine cellar spills secrets

Nov. 22, 2013
Courtesy of Brandeis University
and World Science staff

Would you drink wine fla­vored with mint, hon­ey and a dash of psy­cho­trop­ic resins? An­cient Canaan­ites did more than 3,000 years ago, ex­perts say.

Ar­chae­o­lo­gists have un­earthed what they say may be the old­est—and largest—wine cel­lar in the Near East, con­tain­ing 40 jars. Each would have held 50 liters (13 gal­lons) of strong, sweet wine. Al­though bro­ken and emp­ty, they con­tain rec­og­niz­a­ble wine res­i­due, they say.

Ancient wine jugs at Tel Ka­bri. (Credit: Eric Cline)


The cel­lar turned up in the ru­ined pal­ace of a sprawl­ing Ca­naan­ite ­city in north­ern Is­ra­el, called Tel Kabri. The site dates to about 1,700 B.C.

“It’s a wine cel­lar that, to our knowl­edge, is largely un­matched in age and size,” said Er­ic Cline of The George Wash­ing­ton Uni­vers­ity in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Cline and As­saf Yasur-Landau of the Uni­vers­ity of Hai­fa in Is­ra­el co-directed the ex­cava­t­ion.

Re­search­ers pre­sented the find­ings Fri­day in Bal­ti­more at the an­nu­al meet­ing of the Amer­i­can Schools of Ori­en­tal Re­search.

Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sci­ent­ist An­drew Koh of Bran­deis Uni­vers­ity in Bos­ton an­a­lyzed the or­gan­ic res­i­due. He found mo­lec­u­lar traces of tar­tar­ic and sy­ringic ac­id, both key com­po­nents in wine. He also identified as com­pounds sug­gest­ing in­gre­di­ents pop­u­lar in an­cient wine-making, in­clud­ing hon­ey, mint, cin­na­mon bark, ju­ni­per berries and psy­cho­trop­ic—or mood-altering—resins. The rec­i­pe is si­m­i­lar to me­dic­i­nal wines used in an­cient Egypt for 2,000 years, he said.

Koh al­so an­a­lyzed the pro­por­tions of key com­pounds and found great con­sist­en­cy be­tween jars. “This was­n’t moon­shine that some­one was brew­ing in their base­ment, eye­balling the mea­sure­ments,” Koh said. “This wine’s rec­i­pe was strictly fol­lowed in each and eve­ry jar.”

Im­por­tant guests drank this wine, notes Yasur-Landau.

“The wine cel­lar was lo­cat­ed near a hall where ban­quets took place, a place where the Kabri elite and pos­sibly for­eign guests con­sumed goat meat and wine,” he said. At the end of the dig­ging sea­son, the team found two doors lead­ing out of the wine cel­lar, both per­haps lead­ing to oth­er stor­age rooms. They’ll have to wait un­til 2015 to know for sure.


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Would you drink wine flavored with mint, honey and a dash of psychotropic resins? Ancient Canaanites did more than 3,000 years ago, experts say. Archaeologists have unearthed what they say may be the oldest—and largest—wine cellar in the Near East, containing 40 jars. Each would have held 50 liters (13 gallons) of strong, sweet wine. Although broken and empty, they contain recognizable residue, they say. The cellar turned up in the ruined palace of a sprawling Canaanite city in northern Israel, called Tel Kabri. The site dates to about 1,700 B.C. “It’s a wine cellar that, to our knowledge, is largely unmatched in age and size,” said Eric Cline of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Cline and Assaf Yasur-Landau of the University of Haifa in Israel co-directed the excavation. Researchers presented the findings Friday in Baltimore at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research. Archaeological scientist Andrew Koh of Brandeis University in Boston analyzed the organic residue. He found molecular traces of tartaric and syringic acid, both key components in wine, as well as compounds suggesting ingredients popular in ancient wine-making, including honey, mint, cinnamon bark, juniper berries and resins. The recipe is similar to medicinal wines used in ancient Egypt for 2,000 years, he said. Koh also analyzed the proportions of each diagnostic compound and discovered remarkable consistency between jars. “This wasn’t moonshine that someone was brewing in their basement, eyeballing the measurements,” Koh notes. “This wine’s recipe was strictly followed in each and every jar.” Important guests drank this wine, notes Yasur-Landau. “The wine cellar was located near a hall where banquets took place, a place where the Kabri elite and possibly foreign guests consumed goat meat and wine,” he said. At the end of the digging season, the team found two doors leading out of the wine cellar, both perhaps leading to other storage rooms. They’ll have to wait until 2015 to find out for sure.