The Biggest Discovery in the History of Ancient Wine

The Biggest Discovery in the History of
Ancient Wine

An extremely impressive wine making factory located within a large and well planned out industrial area dating from the Byzantine period, over 1500 years ago, has been unveiled in the city of Yavneh in Central Israel.
It is the largest known wine production plant in the world from this period.
Today’s Israeli wine makers have calculated that the vast winery of Yavneh was capable of producing 2 million liters of wine per year.
According to modern laws of Israel, permission is required from the Israel Antiquities Authority before any building is constructed in order to make sure that no antiquities will be buried forever without examining them.
Therefore, if there is suspicion of any important finds the authority requires a rescue excavation to be conducted.
This excavation is intended to reveal any archaeological and historical information embedded in the site and to rescue any finds contained there.
That is exactly what happened in Yavneh in 2019 prior to the expansion of the city resulting in the discovery of many archaeological treasures. The authorities want to preserve the site as much as possible and the development plans will be coordinated with the results of the survey. City construction plans will be changed accordingly and a large archaeological park will be established at the site.

The amazing archaeological finds include magnificent wine cellars, warehouses for aging and marketing the wine, kilns for firing the pottery vessels in which the liquids were stored, complete intact pottery vessels along with tens of thousands of fragments of the same pottery. Neat access routes between the facilities were also found.

Dr. Eli Hadad, Liat Nadav-Ziv and Dr. Yochanan (John) Seligman, the directors of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said: “We were surprised to discover a sophisticated factory here, which was used to produce wine in commercial quantities.”

The dimensions of the wine factory are very impressive. It contains five large wine presses with two of them being of double capacity, totaling seven wine presses. Each of the wine presses had a treading floor where the grapes were compressed by foot, fermentation cells, storage cells and in the center a circle where the screw press had once been positioned. Some of the wine presses have a covering of small stones laid in geometric style and others have impressive niches in the shape of giant clamshells.

A group of today’s wine makers have calculated that the vast factory of Yavneh was capable of producing 2 million liters of wine per year. The calculation was based on the fact that there are 23 fermentation cells that would normally hold the wine for four days before it was transferred to the amphoras, the special vases that held the wine. The excavators assume that the wine was exported to Europe under the brand name “Gaza Wine” after the port of Gaza. In addition, pilgrims visiting the Holy Land would take it back home. The wine was also consumed locally by people of all ages, even children. It would be used to sanitize the water and to give it a little taste. The wine was greatly diluted so that children and adults would not become intoxicated from drinking water.

As in ancient Roman and Byzantine times lead was used in the installation of pipes between the cells. The use of lead was common practice even with water pipes since lead forms a layer of oxide when it contacts the air, which explains its resistance to corrosion. Today we know that lead and its compounds are highly toxic. It was so widely used that some historians believe that one of the reasons for the downfall of the Roman Empire was due to lead poisoning of the population.

Amphora Kilns

Not far from the wine presses a number of kilns were uncovered. This was where the special vases called amphoras, that held the wine, were fired. Amphora is the Greek term for a type of vessel with a pointed bottom. The “Gaza Amphoras” special cone shaped bottom served to catch the sediment of the wine and allow it to sink to the bottom, that way it would not end up being poured into glasses. Next to the wine presses ‘stands’ can be found, that perfectly fit the shape and size of the amphoras. Archaeologists had expected to find the kilns near the wine factory since the amount of amphoras required to store so much wine could not be feasibly transported from another area.

A spectacular ancient gold ring

One of the glorious finds uncovered by the amphora factory was a spectacular ancient gold ring, inlaid with a purple semi-precious stone. The analytical laboratory of the Israel Antiquities Authority has revealed that the stone is mostly made of silica, a material from which many gems are composed, and was identified as being an amethyst. They ruled out the possibility that the inlay is made of glass. The person who wore the ring was probably wealthy and such rings were worn by both men and women. The excavators suggest that the amethyst could have had more meaning than just being a pretty stone. “Many virtues have been associated with this gem, including the prevention of the side effect of drinking – the hangover.” This is particularly interesting considering that the ring was found at the winery. We might raise the assumption that the owner of the ring wanted to avoid getting drunk as a result of drinking too much wine.

Researchers are debating the date of the ring. It was found in a fill that apparently dates to the end of the Byzantine period – the beginning of the Early Islamic period – 7th century CE (AD). However, it is possible that the ring, due to its beauty and prestige, was handed down through generations for centuries. Gold rings inlaid with amethyst stone are known in the Roman world and it is possible that the ring belonged to someone of the upper class living in the city as early as the 3rd century.

Mosaic Floors

Among the finds that have been uncovered at the site are mosaic floors. They indicate how elaborate the factory and how wealthy the residential area had been. The largest mosaic has already been moved and will be reconstructed in the city center of modern day Yavneh.

Yavneh Mound – Tell Yavneh

The residential area of Yavneh was probably the Tell – a mound created by the accumulation of archaeological remains – that is situated to the west of the industrial area but has not been completely excavated yet. The remains of its first resident go back to the Middle Bronze age – the 2nd millennium BCE (BC) and even tombs from the 4th millennium BCE (BC) have been discovered nearby. The site of the settlement was chosen because of its proximity to the Sorek River, a direct source of water for the ancient city. The Hebrew name “Sorek” means ‘the best kind of vines’, probably for making red wines, and perhaps that gives a hint as to why the wine factory was founded there.

The Jewish Sanhedrin

In the Mishnah, the first major written collection of Jewish oral traditions which is also known as the Oral Torah, it is said that after the destruction of Jerusalem the Jewish leadership migrated to Yavneh, and that the sages of Yavneh lived in a vineyard and studied the Torah. It was after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE (AD) and the loss of the Second Temple when Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai reestablished the Sanhedrin in Yavneh, where modern Judaism was born. The Sanhedrin, a Jewish court, was established by Jewish elders as part of the process that was essential for adapting Judaism to a new situation where there was no central Temple, in terms of laws, calendar, and liturgy. It became the basis for Jewish religious practice throughout the world. It is exiting to imagine all the people that lived and work at the site, some being very wealthy, making a lot of wine, having an amphora factory, learning the Torah, enjoying the Holy Land wine and exporting it to the Diaspora.

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