World's Oldest, Largest Wine Cellar Ever Discovered In Israel; Ancient Canaanites Made Wine With Juniper, Cinnamon, Mint, And Honey

By Ajit Jha on November 22, 2013 8:54 AM EST

Ancient Kabri Wine Jugs
These 3,700-year-old jars were discovered in an ancient palatial wine cellar unearthed by researchers at Tel Kabri in July 2013. The team worked in day and night shifts to excavate a total of 40 intact vessels during its six-week dig. (Photo: Eric H. Cline, George Washingt)

Many of the globe's ancient civilizations that achieved the heights of cultural excellence also boasted a robust wine industry. The recent discovery in Israel of a 3,700 year old wine cellar unmatched in age and size hammers the point home: alcohol and civilization are a good mix. 

The team of archeologists from George Washington, Haifa, and Brandeis Universities stumbled upon an acrcheological goldmine when they discovered a cellar containing wine jars with remnants of wine flavored with mint, honey, and a dash of psychotropic resins. Archaeologists have unearthed nearly 40 jars, at an ancient wine cellar in modern Israel, each with the capacity to hold 50 liters of sweet, strong wine.

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What is even more surprising is that the ancient Canaanites savored this exotic variety of wine more than 3,000 years ago. This means that this is likely the oldest and largest wine cellar ever unearthed. The site estimated to date about 1,700 BCE is actually a ruined palace of a sprawling Canaanite city in northern Israel, called Tel Kabri. The place is located near several modern day wineries in Israel.

Eric Cline chair of the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of at The George Washington University exuberantly said in a press release that, "This is a hugely significant discovery — it's a wine cellar that, to our knowledge, is largely unmatched in age and size." The excavation was co-directed by Cline and Assaf Yasur- Landau, chair of the Department of Maritime Civilizations at the University of Haifa, while Andrew Koh, assistant professor of classical studies at Brandeis University, was an associate director. The archeological findings will be presented at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research this Friday, November 22, 2013.

When Koh, an archaeological scientist used organic residue analysis to study the jar fragments, molecular traces of tartaric and syringic acid were revealed. These are the key components present in wine. The other compounds found in the analysis included resins, juniper berries, cinnamon bark, mint, and honey — popular ingredients used in ancient wine making. The ancient Egyptians used similar ingredients in medicinal wines.

In addition, the proportions of each diagnostic compound were found to be remarkably consistent, when Koh analyzed them. "This wasn't moonshine that someone was brewing in their basement, eyeballing the measurements," Koh said in a press release. "This wine's recipe was strictly followed in each and every jar." This exclusive was served to important guests, according to Yasur-Landau. Yasur-Landau speculates that the wine cellar adjoining a banquet hall must have served the local elite and foreign guests, who "consumed goat meat and wine," he said.  

The team, at the end of the season, also discovered two doors leading out of the wine cellar. While one of the doors led to the west, the other led to the south. These doors possibly led to storage rooms, but further investigation will have to wait until 2015 for indisputable evidence.   

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