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Archaeologists Uncover 3,700-Year-Old Wine Cellar

What did Canaanite royals drink in 1700 B.C.? A new discovery points toward wines flavored with mint and cinnamon

Dave Levitan
Posted: November 25, 2013

The ancient Canaanites apparently appreciated the finer things. Archaeologists working in northern Israel recently uncovered an exciting find—a large storeroom containing 40 well-preserved wine jars. The jars, dating to about 3,700 years ago, may have contained a precise and refined recipe likely consumed by the rich and powerful of the city of Tel Kabri.

“These probably were not your everyday wines; it was probably fairly expensive,” said Eric Cline, a professor of classics and anthropology at George Washington University and one of the dig’s directors. “It would have been used by the king.”

Ancient wine jars have turned up before, but this discovery is notable for several reasons: The jars were found in a large room seemingly used specifically as a wine cellar; chemical analysis proves, according to the investigators, that wine—not olive oil or another substance—was stored there; and it was a kingly batch, characterized by an impressive standardization of ingredients across all 40 of the 50-liter jars. This was a collection of the good stuff.

Cline and his co-investigators, Assaf Yasur-Landau of the University of Haifa in Israel and Andrew Koh of Brandeis University, presented their findings at the American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting in Baltimore Nov. 22. They told Wine Spectator that this is the oldest discovery of a true wine cellar; the palace was in use around 1700 B.C. in a period known as the Late Bronze Age. Excavations of older sites, including a 5,000-year-old site in Egypt and another in present-day Armenia dating to 3000 B.C., showed no indication that the wine stored therein was meant to be consumed nearby. In the Tel Kabri case, the storeroom was located next to a chamber that functioned as the palace’s banquet hall—just a few steps from cellar to table.

Patrick McGovern, an expert on ancient wine and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, stressed that a number of finds in the region came from earlier dates, but in Canaan—which includes modern-day Israel, the West Bank, Lebanon and parts of Syria—“you could make that [earliest] claim, because we don’t have a lot of early evidence for that area.”

Because the discovery is the earliest known wine cellar clearly connected with palatial life, it could hold clues relating to the role of the drink in Canaan’s high society. “If it holds up, it’s an important finding, because it will show how Canaanite winemaking developed,” McGovern said. The Canaanites, he added, potentially began making wine as far back as 5000 B.C., and brought domesticated grapevines to Egypt and across the Mediterranean to southern Europe as well. “The Canaanites are really a sort of focal point for the whole development of winemaking in the Mediterranean and Egypt,” he said.

Ancient wine was flavored with herbs, and the investigators outlined the likely recipe, although uncertainty remains as to the specific ingredients used. Chemical analysis revealed certain compounds in each of the jars, suggesting the presence of ingredients such as honey, mint, cinnamon bark, juniper and tree resins. But, as McGovern pointed out, such chemical compounds are rarely specific to a single type of plant or herb.

Koh recognized that the analysis could not pin down precisely what was originally in the wine, but noted that the suggested ingredients match with plants and herbs native to the region. He dismissed the possibility that the jars could have held anything other than wine, citing in particular the presence of syringic and tartaric acid: “The resination is pretty much beyond a shadow of a doubt,” Koh said. “The additives, they can come from many botanical sources. The resinated, herbal wine? We’re confident saying that’s what it is.”

Cline and his team plan to publish their full results and will continue to work at the site in Tel Kabri, first reconstructing the jars and later excavating two other rooms adjacent to the cellar. After all, the royalty of ancient Canaan probably owned more than 40 jars of wine.

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