Digging this summer at the ruins of a 1700 B.C. Canaanite palace in northern Israel, archaeologists struck wine.
Near the banquet hall where rulers of a Middle Bronze Age city-state and their guests feasted, a team of U.S. and Israeli researchers broke through to a storage room holding the remains of 40 large ceramic jars. The vessels were broken, their liquid contents long since vanished, but not without a trace.
A chemical analysis of residues left in the 3-foot-tall jars detected organic traces of acids that are common components of all wine and ingredients popular in ancient winemaking. These included honey, mint, cinnamon bark, juniper berries and resins used as a preservative. The recipe was similar to medicinal wines used for 2,000 years in ancient Egypt and probably tasted something like retsina or other resinous modern Greek wines.
So the archaeologists who have been exploring the Canaanite site, Tel Kabri, said Friday that they had found one of civilization’s oldest and largest wine cellars. The storage room held the equivalent of about 3,000 bottles of red and white wines, they said — and they suspected this was not the palace’s only wine cellar.
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“This is a hugely significant discovery,” Eric Cline, a co-director of the Tel Kabri excavations, said in a statement issued by George Washington University, where he is chairman of the department of classical and Near Eastern languages and civilizations. “It’s a wine cellar that, to our knowledge, is largely unmatched in its age and size.”
Cline and the other co-director, Assaf Yasur-Landau of the University of Haifa in Israel, described their findings Friday in Baltimore at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research.
Another member of the team, Andrew Koh of Brandeis University, reported the results of the organic-residue analysis, emphasizing the quantity of the samples and thoroughness of the testing. The researchers had to work quickly to examine the residues before they became contaminated from exposure outside the storage room.
He noted that the people who made the wine thought very carefully about its production.
“This wasn’t moonshine that someone was brewing in their basement, eyeballing the measurements,” Koh said. “The wine’s recipe was strictly followed in each and every jar.”
As for the cellar itself, it was about 15 feet by 25 feet and located just off a large banquet hall in the palace.
The archaeologists said much of the palace, including the banquet hall and the wine-storage room, had been destroyed 3,600 years ago in some violent event, perhaps an earthquake or mudslide. The wine cellar was covered with thick debris of mud bricks and plaster. That and the fact no subsequent buildings were erected on top of the site made Tel Kabri an inviting place for archaeological studies.
Team members said some older discoveries had been made before in tombs, but nothing on the scale of Tel Kabri.
Patrick McGovern of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania said he had “reservations about a finding for which a detailed scientific report has not been published.”
He said in an email that “the oldest chemically confirmed ‘wine cellars’ are those in the tomb Scorpion I of Egypt,” about 3150 B.C.
“If we are making the claim only for ancient Canaan, and put the emphasis on ‘palatial,’ ” McGovern suggested, “the Kabri might well be the earliest.”
McGovern and other researchers have been able to re-create ancient wines and beers from the dregs from long-ago tastings.
Koh said his group expected to produce a reasonable facsimile of the 1700 B.C. vintage favored by the palace elite in the land of Canaan.
Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.