Two subterranean Byzantine period winepresses were discovered in recent excavations at Tzippori National Park. Unearthed inside a massive five-arched water cistern about 200 meters outside of town, they are the only winepresses that have been documented to date that were built inside a covered water reservoir.
Tzippori was home to a flourishing mixed pagan, Christian and Jewish community during the 4th-7th centuries CE. In the third century CE, it was the seat of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, aka Judah the Prince, where he began compiling the Mishnah. There is no iconography on the wine presses and, according to National Parks Authority archaeologist Dr. Zvika Tzuk, in such a heterogeneous society, it would be impossible to know who made the wine at these two presses.
However, he told The Times of Israel, based on an obscure Jewish law practiced during the Shmita year (every seventh year in the agricultural calendar when the fields are meant to “rest”), the size of the smaller wine press could be an indication that it was used by Jews of the era.
“But this is just a guess, and we cannot really know,” said Tzuk.
There are other examples of roofed Byzantine-era wine presses in the country. Last year, during digs near the Ramat Negev Regional Council, a team of Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists discovered a large Byzantine-era structure dating to the fourth century CE, inside of which was the remains of a wine press.
What is unique about the Zippori wine presses, however, is the reuse of a water cistern as its base, said Tzuk.
According to Tzuk, “This winepresses were found in the largest of two arched-reservoirs in the Zippori National Park, which are part of the impressive water system at the site, including long aqueducts that provided water to the ancient city of Zippori. The area of the large reservoir in which the winepress was found is 5 x 9 meters, its depth is 3.5 meters, and its ceiling rests on five arches.”
Tzippori’s vast water system of aqueducts and cisterns dates back to the 1st and 2nd centuries and was in use until the 7th or 8th. These wine presses were converted in the 4th century, said Tzuk, with additional quarrying into the soft chalk stone and some construction.
There was a flourishing wine trade from the Holy Land during the populous Byzantine era. Wine, quaffed by all sectors of Tzippori’s residents, was documented in one of the town’s most noted mosaics: the Mona Lisa of the Galilee. Apart from the portrait of the lovely lady from which the mosaic derives its name, there is also a spirited depiction of a wine-drinking contest between the Greek deity Dionysus — god of wine and theater — and the hero Heracles, his half-brother. (Spoiler: the god wins.)
The National Parks team hope that the Arches Cisterns will become as visited a site as the currently more famous mosaics for which the town is known. Located just adjacent to the site’s entrance hall, they are an easy first stop on a tour of the ancient town.
This finding was discovered in the framework of excavations launched in 2002 for tourist development and research in the Zippori National Park. It was led by the National Park’s Tzuk, who worked under the auspices of the Israel Antiquities Authority together with Dr. Yossi Bordowitz, Dr. Dror Ben Yosef, and Prof. Jim Parker, vice president of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Students from the Reali School in Haifa and the Oded School in the Yodfat area also participated in the excavation.
Upon completion of the excavations, the Nature and Parks Authority intends to reconstruct part of the arches and roof and to present the site to the visitors in as close to its original state as possible.