World’s Oldest Wine Cellar?

Eric H. Cline/The George Washington University

ScienceShot: World's Oldest Wine Cellar?

Sid is a freelance science journalist.

Archaeologists excavating a 3700-year-old Canaanite palace in northern Israel have unearthed what they say is the largest, oldest wine cellar in the Near East. The 5-by-8-meter basement storeroom held 40 large jars (examples in image), each of which could have held about 50 liters of liquid. By taking shards of pottery and boiling them in a chemical solvent, researchers extracted organic compounds from the residues left behind when the wine evaporated. Those substances included traces of tartaric acid and syringic acid—telltale substances found in wine—as well as hints of other ingredients such as honey, mint, cinnamon bark, juniper berries, and various plant resins, the team reports today in Baltimore at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research. Some of these ingredients added flavor, some were used as preservatives, and yet others were presumably added for their mind-altering characteristics, the researchers say. Moreover, while some of these ingredients were locally produced, others were imported. The consistency of the proportions of compounds from one jar to the next suggests that the wines—some were red, and some white—were “consciously crafted and brewed” according to a sophisticated recipe, one team member said. The volume of jars discovered thus far suggests that all the wine was destined to be consumed there in the palace. However, archaeologists have discovered two other doors leading from the basement storeroom to adjacent rooms that haven’t yet been excavated. If those rooms also contain wine jars, the researchers say, that might suggest that the palace was also a distribution point for locally produced wine. While older examples of wine have been found elsewhere—including a substantial stockpile found in an Egyptian tomb—the newly described, actively used wine cellar is certainly the oldest found thus far in this region.

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*Update, 22 November, 1:08 p.m.: This story has been updated to clarify that evidence of older wines has been found, but the newly described stockpile was the largest, actively used wine cellar in the Near East.

Posted in Archaeology, Asia