Ancient liquor factory emerges from beneath Jaffa streets

Ancient liquor factory emerges from beneath Jaffa streets

Archaeologists find 1,500-year-old industrial site for producing what they believe were fruit liquors or exotic dyes for international trade

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

A Byzantine-era industrial site unearthed beneath the streets of modern Jaffa. (Photo courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority/ Flash90)
A Byzantine-era industrial site unearthed beneath the streets of modern Jaffa. (Photo courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority/ Flash90)

A rare 1,500-year-old workshop that may have manufactured fruit liquors or exotic dyes in Byzantine-era Palestine emerged from beneath the concrete of modern-day Jaffa during digging for a construction project, Israel’s Antiquities Authority announced Thursday.

The industrial site located on the outskirts of the ancient port city is the first of its kind from the late Byzantine era, and comprised a number of pressing floors and cisterns for the crushing of fruit from surrounding orchards.

The factory was “divided into surfaces paved with white industrial mosaic tiles,” Dr. Yoav Arbel, the archaeologist running the dig, told The Times of Israel. “This kind of surfacing is commonly found in facilities from this period for extracting liquids because of its nonporous properties.”

Each one of the tiled pressing floors was connected to a plastered collection basin into which the liquids would flow, he explained.

“According to all the experts that I brought to the site and that I asked… the basins are way too small for wine production,” Arbel said, but not too small for other fruit liquors.

During the Byzantine and Roman eras, inhabitants of the and of Israel manufactured alcoholic drinks from figs, dates, pomegranates and virtually every other fruit common to the area as well as grapes, he said. Ancient Jaffa was an exporter of wine, and perhaps fruit liquor as well, to areas across the Mediterranean, and this site could be evidence of that antique trade network.

“These are much rarer than an ordinary wine press,” said Arbel, adding that there was only one other site of its kind found in Israel, but from several centuries earlier.

Sites of this kind show “a definite decline” in the archaeological record after the Arab invasion of Palestine in the 7th century, he said.

“That is not necessarily because they forbade the production of wine; [Islam] doesn’t forbid Christians and Jews from consuming alcoholic beverages,” Arbel said. Rather, he pointed at a decrease in demand due to conversion of significant portions of the population to Islam and disconnection from European markets.

Arbel took samples of the plaster lining the basins in order to test for substances that were contained therein and glean a better indication of the site’s purpose. The results were not yet available and would not be ready for some time, however.

The section of the factory unearthed this month was likely a mere fraction of a much larger industrial complex, he noted. “It could be significantly larger,” and future digs might yield more evidence, he said.

Once archaeological excavations are finished, new infrastructure will be laid atop them so as not to damage the site, the Antiquities Authority said.

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