Last week, a team of American and Israeli researchers announced the discovery of what may be one of civilization’s oldest—and largest—wine cellars. The team made the find while excavating a banquet hall at a Canaanite palace in what is now northern Israel.
The 75-acre ancient city, known as Tel Kabri, was founded around 1700 B.C., although the earliest evidence of settlement in the region dates back more than 16,000 years to the Neolithic period. One of the most influential Canaanite cities of the Bronze Age, Tel Kabri was likely destroyed around 3,600 years ago, possibly by an earthquake. It has long been an intriguing location for archeologists, as very little of the area was built over by later cities—making it the only Canaanite city that can be fully excavated. Work began at the site in the 1980s, but picked up steam in 2005 when an international team from George Washington University and Israel’s University of Haifa joined forces. Four years later, the team made its first significant discovery: the remains of Minoan-style fresco paintings on the palace’s walls, the first—and only—example of this art form outside of the Aegean.
Researchers made their most recent discovery in July, when they knocked down a wall located near the palace’s banquet hall, revealing a 15 foot by 25 foot room filled with debris. Among the clutter they found 40 3-foot-tall pottery jugs, each of which would have held 13 gallons of liquid. Working quickly to protect the newly exposed pottery from the elements, the team was able to excavate all 40 jugs within days, and sent samples back to the United States for further testing. The jars were empty, but in all but two of them Andrew Koh, an archeological chemist from Brandeis University working as part of the team, found traces of syringic and tartartic acids, both common ingredients in wine, as well as flavorings including mint, honey, cinnamon, myrtle and juniper berries. Koh also found traces of resin, likely derived from cedar trees, which would have been used as a preservative and may have given the Canaanite’s wine a slightly psychotropic quality.
It’s not just the size the Tel Kabri wine cellar that surprised researchers—it’s the sophistication and precision of the Canaanite’s winemaking technique. According to Koh, not only did they make wine, but they took a craftsman-like approach. The Tel Kabri wine closely matches ancient recipes devised by the Mari civilization, in what is now Syria. According to researcher Assaf Yasur-Landau of the University of Haifa, this is first time scientists have found physical evidence to back up these ancient texts.
Today, more than 3,500 years after the fall of Tel Kalbri, the nearby Golan Heights and Galilee region is home to some of Israel’s most successful vineyards. But it’s unlikely this recently discovered ancient wine would tickle the fancy of most modern palates. Researchers believe it most closely resembles restina, a traditional Greek wine that also includes resin, lending it a taste some compare to turpentine. Regardless, the Tel Kabri team hopes continued chemical analysis allows them to reproduce the Canaanite’s wine in the future. In the meantime, they’ll continue excavations at the site in a new dig scheduled for summer 2015.