Do you ever wish you could drink wine forever? Our Neolithic precursors seemed to have. They believed wine was an essential delectable from the living world that the dead should also get a nip of, which may be why the world’s oldest winery—discovered this past September and announced Tuesday in a Journal of Archaeological Science paper—sits in an underground funerary complex, surrounded by graves.
The site, a cave called Areni-1, is in the Caucasus Mountains in modern-day Armenia, and it has yielded what appears to be a full kit of vintners’ tools: baskets, a rudimentary grape press, a clay fermenting vat that could hold 14 to 15 gallons, drinking vessels and even organic remains of grapevines, skins and seeds. Though evidence shows that the cave was in use for hundreds of years at least, radiocarbon dating has indicated that the winery was operational by roughly 4100 to 4000 B.C., in the Chalcolithic Period, or Copper Age, around the time man first tried planting seeds, making wheels and jotting down pictograms.
The winery, discovered by the excavation team of Dr. Gregory Areshian from the UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology and Boris Gasparyan, an Armenian archaeologist, is also 1,000 years older than the nearest comparable apparatus, and corroborates the theory that wine originated somewhere in the mountainous region from the Taurus in eastern Turkey through the Caucasus and down to the Zagros range in Iran, which is where Dr. Patrick McGovern discovered the oldest-known grape wine residue, dated to 5400 B.C., on clay jars.
The multinational team of excavators began working at Areni-1 in 2007 and found the press pad the following year. Until last year, however, Areshian thought the cave was about 7,000 square feet, and a residential unit. However, a recently found web of “new passages, new galleries and new caverns”—as well as 26 graves and counting—proved the site to be much bigger, and its purpose much grimmer.
Why would the people of the Areni Valley build a winery inside a mass tomb? As Areshian hypothesized, “The usage of wine in the cave was not intended for general feasting or daily consumption. We can imply that in this particular case, wine was used in ritual ceremonies relating to the process of commemorating the dead and related to different cults and rituals for the netherworld.”
McGovern, who is the scientific director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory and author of Uncorking the Past and Ancient Wine, reviewed the study for publication and called this “a very exciting discovery.” He has found that prehistoric cultures all over the world made this association between wine and the afterlife. “Wine was one of the main funerary gifts for the ancestor, and periodically, they would have special celebrations, sometimes on the death date of the individual, in which wine was offered.” In Africa, groups often shared a beer jar in a tomb, pouring some out for the deceased. In Shang Dynasty China, a ritual leader would drink nine goblets of rice wine while leading a communion with the dead.
As for Areni, the textual record for wine consumption in the area is a familiar one: in the book of Genesis, Noah disembarks from his Ark, plants vines and makes wine. Mount Ararat, supposedly his final port of call, is only about 60 miles from Areni. “Noah’s winery,” joked Areshian of his find, noting that winemaking is still one of the primary industries in the area. This winemaking installation provides a compelling case that the people who used Areni-1 had figured out how to domesticate grapevines by the 5th millennium B.C.
Not much has changed in viniculture in these 6,000 years, if the “winery” operates as Areshian has surmised. “We can imply that grapes were harvested, collected in those baskets, and brought on that pressing installation, pressed there either manually with hands or with bare feet and then the juice flowed along the slanting surface of the basin into the vat, where it fermented. That is our essential reconstruction right now,” he said.
Biochemists found the chemical compound malvidin in a clay pot, indicating that the Areni vintners were making red wine. “Probably naturally the residue was going down and the wine [in the jar] was staying at the top,” Areshian said. “Not so different from today’s unfiltered wines.” Though typically sealed in jars, the wine could have been consumed nouveau-style by the cave’s residents, McGovern suggested. “You’ve got the right temperature inside the cave to keep the wine cool through the vinification, and then you’ve got it right at hand so that you can provide your ancestors, your dead, with wine.”
Some wine may have been traded as well, according to Areshian. “This is a period of extreme cultural and social diversity in those central parts of the Near Eastern highlands,” but cultural “connections were very long-distance, extending for a thousand miles or even more.” Most of the stone objects found in the cave are obsidian, yet there are no natural deposits of it anywhere in the Arpa rivery valley where the Areni people lived. Vigorous trade is the best explanation. The Areni cave excavations have also yielded the oldest leather shoe yet found.
For Areshian, whose work has largely been underwritten by the National Geographic Society, the collaboration between paleobotanists studying the desiccated grape material, biochemists identifying the malvidin on the Areni implements and his own team digging in the trenches is a point of particular pride, providing a solid identification of the Areni setup as a winemaking installation.
There is still much research to be done—DNA testing on the grape material, surveys of the area around the cave to find out where these people lived and more digging in the cave itself. Areni-1 should continue to prove invaluable to those working to piece together the story of wine.