It appears that the town of Yavne, home to the Sanhedrin in exile after the destruction of the Second Temple, became a worldwide powerhouse of wine production some 1,500 years ago. A vast, well-designed industrial estate from the Byzantine period with an impressive wine production complex—the largest of its kind in the world in that period—has been excavated in the city of Yavne over the past two years.
This large-scale excavation has been conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority as part of the Israel Land Authority’s initiative to expand the city. The plant includes five magnificent wine presses, warehouses for aging and marketing the wine, kilns for firing the clay jars in which the wine was stored, tens of thousands of fragments and intact earthen jars, and well-planned access from each facility to the others.
Drinking wine was very common in ancient times, for children and adults alike. The water was not always clean or tasty, so wine was used as a kind of concentrate to improve the taste. Each of the exposed winepresses covered an area of about 225 square meters. Compartments were built across the treading floor for fermenting the grape juice after it had been crushed by barefoot workers, and next to them there stood two enormous octagonal-shaped vats for collecting the extracted liquid.
The directors of the excavation on behalf of the IAA, Dr. Elie Haddad, Dr. Jon Seligman, and Liat Nadav-Ziv, noted: “We were surprised to discover a sophisticated factory here, which was used to produce wine in commercial quantities. Furthermore, decorative niches in the shape of a conch that adorned the winepresses indicate the great wealth of the factory owners. A calculation of the production capacity of these winepresses shows that approximately two million liters of wine were marketed here every year, and, remember, the entire process was conducted manually.”
Four large warehouses were discovered among the winepresses, which served as the winery. The wine was aged in elongated amphorae known as “Gaza jars.” The jars themselves, some of which were discovered whole, amid hundreds of thousands of fragments, were made at the site in large kilns.
According to the three archaeologists, Gaza and Ashkelon Wine was considered a quality brand in antiquity, and its reputation spread far and wide, a bit like Jaffa oranges becoming the brand name for all Israeli oranges. Everyone knew that this wine was a product of the Holy Land, and everyone wanted more and more of it. The wine received its name from the ports of Gaza and Ashkelon from which it was shipped. From Yavne’s main production center of this prestigious wine commercial quantities were transported throughout the Mediterranean basin.
It is interesting to note that the excavation in Yavne revealed even older winepresses from the Persian period, about 2300 years ago. “In the Mishna, it is written that after the destruction of Jerusalem, the Jewish leadership moved to Yavne and that the sages of Yavne lived in a vineyard and studied Torah. The excavation shows a continuum of the existence of the wine industry at the site over many centuries,” said the archaeologists.
These are the citations regarding the vineyard in Yavne, one supports the idea that the sages actually sat in a vineyard, the other suggesting the vineyard was a metaphor:
“This exposition was expounded by Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya before the Sages in the vineyard of Yavne” (Ketubot 4:).
“This exposition was expounded by Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya before the Sages in the vineyard of Yavne. But was there a vineyard? No, those were the disciples of the sages who were sitting in rows upon rows like a vineyard” (Yerushalmi, Berachot 33 A: a).
Eli Eskozido, Director of the IAA, said “the Yavne excavation is a mega-excavation of the IAA covering 20 hectares, with the participation of hundreds of workers and dozens of permanent staff and experts. As an organization that wants to connect the public to its heritage, the IAA has involved youth and residents from Yavne in the excavation. Our archaeologists are doing holy work by exposing unknown chapters of the history of the country, while working hard, braving the heat and the cold. I welcome the cooperation with the Israel Land Authority and the Yavne Municipality.”
Yaakov Quint, Director of the Israel Land Authority, said “the treasures that are part of the land have been exposed thanks to the Israel Lands Authority’s extensive investment in financing the Yavne archeological excavations.”
The Israel Lands Authority’s plan, together with the Municipality of Yavne, includes 12,500 housing units and 450,000 square meters of commercial and employment space. The plan includes doubling up the railway track and new construction over the train station. As part of the preliminary works for the development of the plan, the Israel Land Authority is investing approximately NIS 200 million ($62 million) in the works of the IAA, which will enable the archaeological finds to be exposed, investigated, and preserved for future generations.”
Yavne Mayor Zvi Gov-Ari said: “The impressive findings strengthen the recognition of the importance of the city of Yavne and its glorious past throughout history. We have decided that Tel Yavne will be preserved and will be upgraded to become a focal point for tourism and education in the future. The development plan includes a bridge over the site that will allow the finds to continue to exist. This type of activity, in cooperation with the IAA, has not been done in other projects in the country, and this is an opportunity to thank all parties for their cooperation.”
The IAA, the Israel Land Authority, and the Yavne Municipality invite the public to tour this huge wine factory before it is covered to protect it from rain. Later, the wineries will be preserved and made accessible to the public as part of an archeological park to be established on the site.