Photo Credit: University of Haifa Prof. Prof. Guy Bar-Oz
Ancient wine jug found along with 1,500-year-old grape seeds in the Negev.

Archaeologists have discovered 1,500-year-old grape seeds in the Negev Desert for the first time and which were used to produce “the Wine of the Negev” — one of the finest and most renowned wines in the whole of the Byzantine Empire.

A joint study by University of Haifa and the Israel Antiquities Authority at the Byzantine city of Halutza (found the seeds that were of a variety that did not survive to present days.

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“Our next task is to recreate the ancient wine and perhaps we will then be able to reproduce its taste and understand what made the wine of the Negev so fine,” said the excavation director, Prof. Guy Bar-Oz of the University of Haifa.

“The vines growing in the Negev today are European varieties, whereas the Negev vine was lost to the world. Our next job is to recreate the ancient wine, and perhaps in that way we will be able to reproduce its taste and understand what made the Negev wine so fine,” he added,

Archaeologists know of “the Wine of the Negev” or “Gaza Wine” — named for the port it was sent from to all corners of the empire — from historical sources from the Byzantine period. This wine was considered to be of very high quality and was very expensive.

No one knows what made it so fine because the variety did not survive.  In earlier excavations in the Negev, archaeologists found the terraces where the vines were cultivated, the wineries where wine was produced, and the jugs in which the wine was stored and exported, but the grape seeds themselves were not found until the new discovery.

The archaeologists found the ancient grape seeds in one of the Halutza refuse dumps that were preserved almost completely intact and now mark the boundaries of the ancient city.

The researchers found a particularly high concentration of fragments of pottery vessels used for storage, cooking and serving, which included a significant number of Gaza jugs used for storing the ancient Negev wine. The archaeologists also found a wealth of biological remains, including bones of Red Sea fish and shellfish from the Mediterranean that were imported to the site, which indicated the vast wealth of the Byzantine city residents.

The next stage of the study is to join forces with biologists to sequence the DNA of the seeds to discover their origin.

The archaeologists are asking, “European varieties require copious amounts of water. Today it is less of a problem thanks to technology, but it is unlikely that was the case 1,500 years ago. It is more interesting to think of local grape varieties that were better suited to the Negev. Maybe the secret to the Negev wine’s international prestige lay in the method by which the vines were cultivated in the Negev’s arid conditions.”

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