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Byzantine Wine Press Found in Israeli Desert

Its fermentation pool could hold 6,500 liters of the good stuff

smithsonian.com

Israel’s Negev desert is rocky, arid, and very hot, making it a less-than-optimal place for agricultural activity. But ancient groups who lived in the region built sophisticated irrigation systems that allowed them to conserve precious water and conduct large-scale farming. According to Amanda Borschel-Dan of the Times of Israel, archaeologists working in the Negev recently uncovered an ample, Byzantine-era wine press, revealing that the region’s inhabitants were putting their agricultural skills to boozy use.

The wine press was discovered inside the remnants of a large, stone building that measures more than 130 feet squared. Hagay Hacohen of the Jerusalem Post reports that archaeologists also found a stone pressing floor, a separation pit and a fermentation pool big enough to hold 6,500 liters of wine.

In a video posted by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), excavation director Tali Gini speculates that the structure was used by a Roman army unit; Israel—known then as Judaea—had been incorporated into the Roman empire in 6 A.D.

It is not clear why the press was abandoned, but Gini tells Borschel-Dan that the culprit may have been a “disastrous plague,” which hit the region in the mid sixth century and “led to less need of wine in the southern regions.”

It is the second time in recent months that archaeologists have made a libations-related discovery in Israel. Back in June, researchers announced that they had uncovered a hidden message on a 6th century B.C. pottery shard, which called for wine to be sent to Tel Arad, a desert fortress west of the Dead Sea. 

In 2014, archaeologists made another incredible find: a large wine cellar at the Canaanite palace of Tel Kabri. As Victoria Jaggard reported for Smithsonian.com at the time, the remnants of 40 large jugs were laced with traces of wine, which had been infused with herbs, berries and resins.

That sounds pretty tasty, but according to Gini, Negev wines were the drink of choice for oenophiles of the ancient world. “The southern Negev is known as an agricultural region which grew grapes for wine that was exported to the far reaches of the Byzantine empire,” she tells Borschel-Dan.

Excavations at the site of the wine press are not yet complete, but IAA officials hope that the building will soon open to the public.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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