Byzantine Behemoth: Massive 1,500-Year-Old Winery Discovered in Israel

With five 2,400-square-foot grape presses, the facility may have churned out as much as 2 million liters of wine per year

Byzantine Behemoth: Massive 1,500-Year-Old Winery Discovered in Israel
Archaeologists say some of the Byzantine Empire's finest Gaza and Ashkelon white wines were made here. (Assaf Peretz/Israel Antiquities Authority)
Oct 20, 2021

A team of archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority has unearthed a gigantic winery in the town of Yavne, following a two-year excavation for the Israel Land Authority. The archeologists date the site’s grape presses to some point between the 5th and 7th centuries, when the area was part of the Byzantine Empire. And according to one of the excavation’s directors, Dr. Jon Seligman, the winemaking facility could be the Mediterranean’s biggest from that period or earlier.

“We haven’t identified wine production facilities of that size anywhere else,” Seligman told Wine Spectator. “It’s the largest without question [in the region], and it’s the largest we’ve managed to identify in the Mediterranean Basin.” Indeed, with five grape presses each covering an impressive 2,422 square feet, plus four storage warehouses, the facility could have squeezed out a massive 2 million liters of wine annually.

In addition to the presses, the archaeologists uncovered the factory’s fermentation pits and huge, octagonal collection vats, as well as excellently preserved kilns used to make distinctive amphorae known as “Gaza jars.” The long-gone winery staff left behind tableware and oil lamps as well.

As if the Byzantine winery weren’t old enough, the archaeologists also found 2,300-year-old Persian Empire–era grape presses less than a mile away, adding to existing evidence that wine production in the region is a millennia-old practice.

Based on the presence of Gaza jars, the archaeologists believe the Yavne factory produced light, white Gaza and Ashkelon wines, celebrated and expensive tipples in their time. “[It was] a prestige product, and we know that it was consumed all around the Mediterranean,” Seligman said. “We find the jars themselves in many, many sites. In Egypt, in Asia minor, in Turkey, in ancient Greece. The jars have even been found in the United Kingdom.”

While it’s not clear who operated the winery, there’s no evidence that it was connected to any of the monastic or ecclesiastical bodies, notable wine producers 1,500 years ago. “It was probably a secular installation,” said Seligman, who posits that the facility was owned by a major landowner, or possibly by a municipal community company. “It certainly was operated by a single authority, because the different parts of the wine press show a unity.” But the owners, whoever they were, were flush enough to adorn the winepresses with decorative, conch-shaped niches, a sign of significant wealth.

“To find something of that scale in one site—and the pressing and the organization of it—is what is so exciting about this discovery,” Seligman said. “It gives us an extra push to our understanding of the local Gaza and Ashkelon wine.” The excavation is now finished, and the site has been opened for public tours until it’s protectively covered from seasonal rains. Afterward, it will be converted into a permanent archaeological park. So we will finally be able to explore wine’s past via Byzantime machine.


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