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Oldest Wine Cellar Found in Ancient Site in Israel

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. Photographer: Eric H. Cline, George Washington University
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. Photographer: Eric H. Cline, George Washington University

Nov. 22 (Bloomberg) -- A 3,700-year-old wine cellar still holding vestiges of the drink has been unearthed in the Near East, potentially offering modern man a true taste of the past.

The excavation in the ancient city of Tel Kabri, in Israel uncovered 40 jars in sizes that could have filled about 3,000 modern wine bottles. The residue suggested they once contained both white and red wine, made with additives that included juniper berries, cinnamon bark, mint and myrtle.

The group had been digging since 2005 at the site, believed to be an ancient Canaanite palace and decorated with Aegean-style frescoes, the only such art to be found in Israel so far, according to a presentation today in Baltimore at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research.

“We’re thinking it’s a palatial wine cellar,” said Eric Cline, one of the archaeologists and the chairman of the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at George Washington University. Two-thousand liters of wine isn’t enough for the general population. “It’s just enough for the ruler and his household.”

Researchers located the cellar near the ruins of what was likely a banquet hall. The hall and cellar were destroyed in what may have been an earthquake.

Andrew Koh, an assistant professor of classical studies at Brandeis University, extracted the residue at the site and brought the samples to analyze at a lab at the Waltham, Massachusetts-based university. The consistency of the leftovers suggested the wine mix was made using a closely followed recipe.

Trade Route

The additives were probably there to preserve the wine, and some came from non-local plants, suggesting thriving trade routes.

It was “a very luxurious drink reserved for special occasions,” said Assaf Yasur-Landau, the chairman of the department of maritime civilizations at the University of Haifa, and co-director of the excavation.

The recipe was similar to medicinal wines used in ancient Egypt, the researchers said. “We can imagine it was like if you take a resinated wine and pour cough syrup in,” Yasur-Landau said.

Researchers plan to continue analyzing the residue, in hopes of discovering enough information to recreate the flavor.

The archaeologists had to work quickly to get the jugs out before winter, when the weather likely would destroy them. Working in two teams, they finished just before the scheduled end of the dig.

There may be more wine containers yet to be found. A few days before the dig ended, the team discovered two doors leading out of the wine cellar, which may point toward additional storage rooms. A dig is scheduled for 2015 to explore further.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Lopatto in San Francisco at elopatto@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net

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