The Canaanite kings of Tel Kabri drank plenty of wine, and for the first time archaeologists have hard evidence for it after unearthing a Bronze Age royal wine cellar at the northern Galilee site.
Kabri, a Middle Bronze Age city located a few miles east of the modern town of Nahariya, was excavated last year by a team headed by Dr. Assaf Yasur-Landau of University of Haifa, Dr. Eric H. Cline of George Washington University, and Dr. Andrew Koh of Brandeis University. During the dig, they found 40 narrow-necked, meter-tall, handleless jugs which date back over 3,600 years.
After conducting a residue analysis of the ceramics found last summer, they said in an article published Wednesday in PLOS ONE that the vessels contained wine.
“The presence of both tartaric and syringic acids in relative abundance as biomarkers indicates that all of these vessels originally held wine and that we may be confident in identifying this space as a wine storage room – that is to say, a wine cellar,” they wrote. A lack of syringic acid, a compound prevalent in red wine, in three of the jars may indicate the lords of the palace also held a stock of white, they postulate, “but it is difficult to say with certainty without further evidence.”
But the wine wasn’t a straight grape-to-barrel concoction. The analysis found that the ancients enhanced their vino with herbs and resins to help flavor and preserve it. Chemical traces suggest that the jar’s contents had herbal additives including “honey, storax resin, terebinth resin, cyperus, cedar oil, juniper, and perhaps even mint, myrtle, or cinnamon.”
At roughly 2,000 liters of wine, the researchers noted, the quantity found in the cellar suggests the stash was “directly related to consumption within the palace,” rather than for mass distribution.
“We may have here the private reserve of the ruler and his household. ”
Discovering an ancient palace’s storeroom filled with ancient wine jars was a “most unusual find,” Yasur-Landau told The Times of Israel.
“You do not usually find palaces, not to mention palaces that are as early as that, [with] rooms that are filled with very, very large ceramic storage jars,” Yasur-Landau, chair of the department of maritime civilization at the University of Haifa, said.
He said that there are at least two more storerooms adjoined to the one already excavated that remain to be unearthed in the 2015 season. They, too, might contain vessels for wine, or perhaps other commodities such as olive oil or wheat.
“On the other edge of the room there’s a massive entrance with double-doorways, which is likely leading to something important,” he said. Adjacent to the storeroom the excavators also found the remains of an elegantly decorated “banquet hall” with bright white plaster on the floor in which large quantities of meat — sheep and goats, and wild cattle (aurochs) — was consumed and other wine jars were found.
“It is very likely that in every celebration… wine was consumed and wine was also offered to the gods,” not dissimilar to ancient and modern Jewish ritual, he said.
The region of the western Galilee where Tel Kabri is situated was noted in antiquity for its wine production, as it remains today. Kibbutz Gesher Ziv, just west of the site, and Abirim, to its east, both possess vineyards and boutique wineries. Cultivars of the ancient grapes used to produce the Canaanite wine may still exist in the wild in northern Israel, meaning the ancient concoction could be recreated.
Professor Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania has teamed up with Dogfish Head Brewery to recreate ancient beers and ales. Yasur-Landau said he seeks to accomplish a similar undertaking and resurrect the Canaanite wine with appropriate scientific diligence.
“We are looking for the right winery to do it, but this will have to be a very serious archaeological experiment,” he said. “The aim is actually double, to re-enjoy the taste of the old wine, but second is to make an accurate reconstruction of the ancient taste.”
For wine aficionados hoping to try the blend should it be recreated, be warned: “The Canaanites were drinking wines that were very different from our wines,” he said. They would deteriorate with age, so they added flavors and natural preservatives to enhance them, lending them tastes unfamiliar to those with modern palates.
Nonetheless, when Canaanite lords threw a banquet in their palace and slaughtered a large animal in celebration, “I have no doubt that the people… were consuming very, very good wine.”