Winery from Bloody Biblical Land Dispute Discovered?

A winegrower and a covetous king had a famous face-off in the Old Testament; new analysis of an ancient winery in Israel suggests it could have been the ill-fated Naboth’s vineyard

Winery from Bloody Biblical Land Dispute Discovered?
Left: the winery site, which may be more than 2,500 years old, with treading floor in the foreground. Right: "Naboth Refuses Ahab His Vineyard," by Thomas Matthews Rooke (1842–1942) (Jezreel Expedition / Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum)
Jun 19, 2020

They never got quite the press David and Goliath did, but the clash between Naboth and Ahab in the Bible’s Book of Kings packs a little extra resonance for the wine-faithful. In this tale, the little guy with the Lord on his side is the winegrower Naboth, owner of a modest vineyard outside of the town of Jezreel in the Kingdom of Israel. King Ahab tries to acquire it, only to be rebuffed; as he sulks, his wife, Jezebel, takes matters into her own hands, framing the vintner for blasphemy and having him stoned to death. Ahab gets his vineyard, but then God hears about what happened ….

Fast-forward three millennia: In 2012, a team of archaeologists led by Profs. Jennie Ebeling at the University of Evansville in Indiana and Norma Franklin of the University of Haifa decided to survey a site outside the ruins of Jezreel. An excavation the following year revealed a treading floor and two vats: a winery. Recent analysis of the excavation and others in the region suggest it may have fit the time and place where Naboth made his last stand.

Winery site at Jezreel
Aerial view of the excavated site. Treading floor is at the bottom left, and the two vats are above and to the right of it. Because of the heat, at least part of fermentation was probably done elsewhere in vessels stored in a cooler place, like one of the caves cut into the hill of Jezreel. (Jezreel Expedition)

“The southern Levant was known for its wine from early times,” Ebeling explained to Unfiltered via email, following the publication of the site’s most recent analysis in this year’s first issue of the Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies. Evidence from a tomb in Egypt shows the rulers of that civilization were already importing wine from the Levant as far back as 5,000 years ago, such was its reputation. “The rich soil and abundant springs in the Jezreel Valley specifically made it the ‘breadbasket’ in ancient Palestine and a place where the staple crops of cereals, grapes, and olives were produced for local consumption and export.”

Winery site at Jezreel
The vat where the fermentation began; note the channel (center) leading from the treading floor. (Jezreel Expedition)

It is difficult to date when Naboth, his ancestors or someone else entirely started making wine at Jezreel, but comparisons to similar sites in the region point to the Iron Age, with the juices flowing as early as 1000 B.C. The treading floor, cut from limestone bedrock and plastered in certain spots, measures 10.5 by 10.5 feet, with a channel running off into a vat that held about 2,150 liters of juice from crush—or 3,300-plus standard bottles of vintage 2020 A.D. wine. (The operation would have been “average size” for a winery in the region, said Ebeling.) The other vat, along with other cavities around the site, might have been used for squeezing press wine from the grape husks, olive oil production, storage or even beermaking.

What kind of wine was it, and who was drinking? Ebeling told us that analysis of ancient indigenous grape remains in the region is ongoing, but 82 unique varieties have already been identified from archaeological finds in Israel. Regardless, the stuff was in demand. In the mid-9th century B.C., “when Ahab and other kings of Israel used Jezreel as a military center and a mustering station for chariot force, Jezreel wine may have supplied the Israelite military.”

Winery site at Jezreel
The treading floor; grape skins and stems could be swept into the divot in the middle to gather after foot-trodding. (Jezreel Expedition)

As Kings tells it, the line of Ahab eventually reaped what he sowed. A usurper killed his son and successor and tossed the body, for good measure, into Naboth’s old field, which, in these Bible passages, is located right around where the Jezreel winery stood. At the very least, the site “may have inspired the writer of this biblical story,” said Ebeling. Jezebel met her end via a shove out a window, and within a few centuries, Assyrians conquered the area. But it would be a happy ending for whoever was still tending the grapes: One Assyrian king is said to have required wine for a soiree of 70,000 guests, and another text records an order placed for the military—for 20,000 liters.


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