Archaeologists Prove: A Canaanite King’s Wine Tasted and Smelled Royal

The unprecedented find of a 4,000-year old wine cellar at a king's palace in Tel Kabri sheds light on the ancient secrets of viticulture.

Eric Cline

Wine has been integral to Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures for millennia, at least anecdotally. Proving that has been challenging, though. Now the marriage of archaeological methodology with science has enabled archaeologists to prove that clay vessels stored in the 4,000-year old cellar of a Canaanite palace in northern Israel contained red wine, and a fine, aromatic vintage fit for a king at that.

The Tel Kabri palace is a sprawling Middle Bronze Age edifice situated in northern Israel, five kilometers from the Mediterranean coast. It was inhabited continuously for over 250 years, from about 1850 BCE to the 1600s BCE, but the inhabitants left no written evidence whatsoever.

With no writing to help date findings, the excavators needed to take extra care in their excavation method.

Archaeology is a destructive science. To learn about a site, it is deconstructed physically. During this process, ceramic sherds get tossed into a tagged bucket attributed to each loci of a grid. Then they get washed, and when they've dried, they are ‘read’. Complete or mostly complete items are sometimes sent off to labs to check their contents, but they may languish on a shelf for years before they are looked at.

At Tel Kabri, the jars found in the palace cellar were mostly complete. And because the team had a micro-archaeology laboratory on site, they could take and analyze samples on the spot, rather than send them afar and risk their degradation. Their techniques were to yield an amazing discovery: Not only was the space the jars were found in a "wine cellar," as originally hypothesized: they could analyze the ingredients comprising the wine.

Finding Bessie

The palatial storage complex was uncovered during the 2013 excavations at Kabri. Andrew Koh, the associate director on the Kabri team and assistant professor of Classical Studies and Florence Levy Kay Fellow in Chemistry at Brandeis University, witnessed the unearthing of "Bessie," the nickname of the first jar found at the beginning of the season.

“I was supervising the collection and recording of sherds from each jar to extract residues back at our field school. After we found Bessie, we were cautiously optimistic," he says: "Bessie" was beautifully preserved.

Because of the systematic nature of their investigation, the archaeologists couldn't just "dig straight down" into the site, Koh explains. "Instead we meticulously peeled away the strata of the entire room and that’s when jars started popping up everywhere! We were ecstatic because we knew right away the significance of such a find - an intact, sealed deposit of storage jars." Which meant – there was a real chance of finding out what the ancients held in those jars.

The best place to sample a sealed jar for its contents is theoretically its bottom. That's where the residues collect, Koh explains. But the bottom itself is too thick, so the excavators choose pieces near the bottom. The samples were quickly wrapped in aluminum foil, without being touched with bare hands, to avoid contamination.

Such processes used to take years. "You can imagine what types of contamination, cleaning, et cetera might have occurred during the interim, not to mention the degradation of the organics now exposed to the air for the first time in centuries,” Koh adds.

Using their field lab, and later Koh’s facilities at Brandeis, the scientists carried out organic residue analysis (ORA), and recorded the cellar's contents using LiDAR – a technology that measures distances by illuminating the target with a laser and analyzing reflected light, resulting in an incredibly accurate surface plan accurate to within 2 millimeters.

Frankincense resin as preservative

What they found was wine. All but three of the samples contained tantaric and syringic acid, components of wine, the archaeologists reported.

Traces of tantaric and syringic acids had been found before, but "the archaeological contexts behind these sporadic discoveries had been uneven and vague," they wrote. The Kabri find was a bonanza: some 40 similar jars, all containing wine (rather than say olive oil or grains), which could lead to reliable conclusions about ancient viticulture.

Back then, wine spoiled quickly. The ancient Canaanites had different ways to slow its decay, including adding resin on top of exotic fragrances and flavors such as essences of trees that came from far-away lands. Cedar oil of course came from Lebanon. One preservative used back then was storax, a pungent resin in frankincense, which probably originated in either Syria or the Southern Anatolian coast in Turkey.  The Kabri wines included cinnamic acid, a component of storax.

Possibly the Canaanites had strict notions of what "royal wine" should be like, says
Assaf Yassur-Landau co-director of Tel Kabri and director of the Mediterranean Studies Department at Haifa University. "It should taste and smell like exotic distant places. It should not only taste good, but it should show that the rulers of Kabri were rich and well connected and had access to these luxury goods from distant lands,” he postulates.

A body of evidence shows that feasting was important aspect of Mediterranean as well as Canaanite palatial society, and wine would have taken an important part in this activity.

“On one hand the Canaanite rulers wanted to be like the locals,” suggests Yassur-Landau, as attested by the seemingly inclusive style of rulership pertaining to the site.  “But on the other hand, they used their unique position as a part of the Mediterranean collectivity to gain access to these different commodities.” At that time it was no easy task to get these ingredients from foreign lands.

It is likely that some of the Canaanite jars found in Egypt and Cyprus from this period contained Levantine-made wine. But unfortunately, when most were excavated they were not properly preserved, let alone tested. The finding at Kabri is a breakthrough for the study of ceramic typology.

Eric Cline
Skyview, courtesy of Eric Cline