Ancient wine cellar discovered in northern Israel

A team of archeologists has discovered what may be the world’s oldest wine cellar, stocked with 40 jars, at a ruined palace in northern Israel.

The once-in-a-lifetime find turned the summer excavation season at a site that dates back to 1,700 B.C. into a frantic race against time. Scientists pulled double shifts to excavate, preserve, and analyze the jars, which would have once held 50 liters of wine, to get as much information as they could while the site was most fresh and intact. A Brandeis University professor gathered residues from shards of the jars in the field and brought those samples back in his luggage to be analyzed without delay—and he hopes to use the findings to make modern versions of the ancient wine.

“We knew when we hit the first jar—we were hoping beyond hope this was something big for us, because the jar was pretty much intact and that pretty much never happens,” said Andrew Koh, assistant professor of classical studies at Brandeis. “Just the ravages of time—they don’t survive.”

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The group, including researchers from George Washington University and the University of Haifa, were scheduled to present their findings Friday morning at a meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research in Baltimore.

The first hint that the room—located just off a main courtyard of the palace located at a site called Tel Kabri—was unusual came from a scan with a remote-sensing technology called LIDAR.

This image of the Tel Kabri wine cellar was created using LIDAR, a technique that uses a pulsed laser to measure distances and generate an accurate 3D map of a location.
The Tel Kabri Archaeological Project

Usually, Koh said, archeologists try to reconstruct what rooms would have been used for by triangulating pretty sparse data.

“There’s usually a scattering of shards, and for most people it’s not all that interesting. ... We have to say, ‘This is a kitchen, perhaps,’ ” Koh said. In this case, however, the LIDAR scan suggested the room was packed with artifacts. He thinks it will ultimately be possible to understand not only that the room was a wine cellar, but to discern from the pattern and grouping of jars what kind of wine was in each one and how they were organized.

At the site this summer, Koh took shards from near the base of the jars—where the most residues were likely to be found—and placed those in tin foil. He carried the shards to a field site where he could boil them in a solvent and gather the residues off of the shards. He brought the solutions that held the residues from 40 jars to his laboratory in Waltham and began looking for the molecular remnants that could provide clues about what the jars once contained.

The instruments he uses can’t say that a jar contained red or white wine, but can identify residues left behind by various substances. Koh found tartaric and syringic acids, which are found in wine, as well as molecules that suggest ingredients such as honey, mint, resins, and cinnamon bark were used.

Koh said his analysis suggests that the wines were made systematically, with the same proportions of ingredients. And he thinks that as he pieces together the chemical evidence with the archeological reconstruction of where jars were located in the room, that it will be possible to find traces of how the cellar was organized—where white vs. red wines were stored.

Koh said that the residues he has found suggest that the ingredients used mirror recipes found in Egyptian texts describing how medicinal wines were made. He has already been talking to people in the wine business about the possiblity of trying to reconstruct the wine itself.

“We have this advantage where we not only have the remains, the physical remains we’ve been detecting and identifying, but we have at least a dozen recipes,” Koh said. “We’re fairly certain we can reconstruct it.”

Understanding what the wine was like and how it was stored within the room may help the researchers understand how people lived and what it was used for. Koh said he doesn’t think that people drank the wine simply for an alcohol buzz—he speculates that it may have had some cultural meaning, or have been used medicinally. Knowing the varieties of wine in the room will, he hopes, help answer some of those questions because it will reveal the patterns of production and storage more than just single shards or jars.

There is still plenty to study in the 3,000-year-old wine cellar, but archeologists are also hopeful for more. There are two other rooms they have yet to excavate.