Biggest Winemaking Facility in Entire Byzantine World Found in Central Israel

Discovery of Byzantine mega-factory in Yavneh that could produce 2 million liters of wine a year stuns archaeologists

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The circle where the screw-press had been placed to squeeze the last goodness from the grapes on the treading floor.
The circle where the screw-press had been placed to squeeze the last goodness from the grapes on the treading floor.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

What may well have been the biggest winemaking facility in the entire Byzantine world has been found in the ancient city of Yavneh. This wasn’t a treading floor with a slave, a donkey and a jar. This was a vast industrial complex not coincidentally situated by a stream in central Israel that was exporting its “Gaza wine” – named for its port of exit, not its provenance – from Egypt to the Levant. And it seems the site had served as an industrial complex going back thousands of years.

There is a theory that agriculture was invented less to stave off hunger as Neolithic settlers ate through the local flora and fauna, but in order to grow barley for beer. Wine and warnings about the perils of sottishness go back a very long way: “Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that tarry late into the night, till wine inflame them!” (Isaiah 5:11).

Evidently that sentiment didn’t impress the masses. Everybody who could drink wine in antiquity, did, from little kiddies to the adults, explain the excavation directors Dr. Elie Haddad, Liat Nadav-Ziv and Dr. Jon Seligman, on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority. They drank it straight or to flavor water, which wasn’t always that fresh. And come the Byzantine era, pilgrims visiting the Holy Land drank the wine and took the news of it with them back to Europe, where demand developed for the Holy Land quaff.

Thusly, wine production facilities are known throughout Israel from north to south, including in the Negev Desert of all places – but the Byzantine-period factory in Yavneh was a whole other magnitude.

The winemaking complex at Tel YavnehCredit: Assaf Perez / IAA
The archaeological dig at Tel Yavneh, central Israel.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Somebody had a dream

The ancient settlement of Yavneh arose by the Sorek stream, providing a reliable source of water for the people and, as civilization evolved, for industry. Some prehistoric finds have been made at the site, and construction there goes back to at least the Middle Bronze Age, from which time the archaeologists have found – among other things – crude pottery kilns. Winemaking there also goes way back: presses have been found there from the Persian period (the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E.).

The Yavneh excavation is presently one of the biggest in Israel, employing about 300 people, Seligman says. At this stage, the team is focusing on the industrial zone that sprawls over the plain below the tell. The townsfolk apparently lived on the tell, which hasn’t been archaeologically explored yet.

In fact, Tel Yavneh had been occupied from time immemorial until 1948, then housing the Arab village of Yibneh.

Back in the Byzantine time, it seems that somebody had a dream. “We have many large winepresses in the country, but to have a complex of five large ones – as well as small ones – in the same place is unique,” Seligman says. Each of the five large (Byzantine) winepresses is about 225 square meters (2,420 square feet) in area.

The main street at Tel Yavneh. The ancient city's industrial areas have been excavated before the residential ones.Credit: Ilan Assayag

“These large winepresses were thoroughly planned,” he says. “All were symmetrical, and their features are all the same. They were built as one complex down to the very last detail. It seems to show that they were all designed as part of one industrial move. There was one decision maker who made the decision to build a complete wine estate with streets, storerooms [where the fermented wine would age in amphorae], winepresses and kilns to make the vessels.”

Make the vessels? Yes, once one achieves mass production, one needs to manufacture all the components on the spot. If you’re producing 2 million liters of wine a year, or even a fraction of that, you can’t feasibly lug thousands of weighty clay amphorae from elsewhere in the country – especially as they could obtain the raw material, clay, at the stream, Seligman explains.

Supporting that scenario, kilns where the amphorae were fired are right there in proximity to the winepresses, the archaeologists point out. And the site is littered with dumps full of broken pottery. Clearly, the individual pot was of no value at all, Seligman posits: if it was flawed, out it went. (There are also later kilns from the Umayyad period in the seventh or eighth century at the site.)

“They were like a plastic bottle today,” he says, “Any sort of crack, they didn’t bother to try to fix it but threw it away. They made tens or hundreds of thousands of these amphorae.”

A fermentation container found at Tel Yavneh, where the sheer scale of the winemaking operation shocked archaeologists. Credit: Ilan Assayag

Suddenly symmetrical

That symmetry of the winepress features is unique to Yavneh, but it isn’t obvious what purpose it served.

The adornment of four smaller stone winepresses with two (symmetrical) sculpted stone niches in the shape of giant clamshells is equally enigmatic, so possibly the symmetry reflects the aesthetic choices of the long-gone vintner. Or, “When talking about a factory of this sort of scale you want a process going through it; maybe by creating symmetry the process could be nice and simple,” Seligman suggests.

That would have been helpful. The Yavneh facility didn’t just produce plonk. The journey of the grape began on relatively small floors where the fruit would not be vandalized by human feet. The grapes would be left to produce “free run” juice just from their own static pressure, Seligman explains. That juice would be turned into the premium vintage, free of the bitter tannins produced when the grape skins are broken from treading.

Then the grapes would be taken to one of the five treading floors to be compressed by foot. In the center of each treading floor, one can still see the circle where the screw-press had been placed to squeeze the last goodness from the trodden grapes.

The winemaking complex at Tel Yavneh, which may have been capable of producing 2 million liters of wine a year.Credit: Ilan Assayag

From the main treading floor, the juice with tannins would flow down to two identical compartments, one on each side, for fermentation. After a few days, it would be allowed to flow down to two huge symmetrical octagonal vats for collection. All these facilities were tiled with crude, white, utilitarian (not decorative) mosaics.

The collection vats don’t have an exit pipe. So how did they get the wine out of them and into their export jars? Using their equivalent of buckets, Seligman shrugs.

And so, from the five big ones and bunch of smaller ones, the archaeologists calculate that the Byzantine winery of Yavneh could produce 2 million liters of wine a year. (We don’t know if it did, but it could, they estimate.) This is modern industrial scale.

What types of grapes were used? We don’t know. Israeli wine is today born of grapes imported from France – no local types. They are extinct. But “Gazan wine” was white, it seems: Ancient sources mention that Gazan wine, “white as snow,” was served at the coronation feast of Justin II in Constantinople in 566, Seligman says, adding that they’re attempting to extract DNA from the ancient grape pips found at the site.

He adds that wine produced in the region in general was referred to as Gazan, as said because it was exported through Gaza (and Ashkelon), much like Israeli oranges became known as “Jaffa oranges” because they were exported through the port of Jaffa. Gazan wine was considered very highly abroad.

Thus, we find that in Alexandria, Egypt, the Gazan-type amphorae bearing Gazan-type wine were found in such huge quantities that they were, in fact, the majority vessel found from the time, Seligman says. Asia Minor in general was a huge customer.

A jar found in situ at Tel Yavneh.Credit: Ilan Assayag

The coming of Islam

And then everything changed. Not overnight, probably, but following the Muslim conquest that ended Byzantine Christian rule over the Holy Land. The nature of the new rule and relations with locals is controversial, but in any case the hallmarks of the rise of the Umayyad and then the Abbasid culture in Yavneh are clear.

The building styles of the Byzantines and Abbasids were different; the Abbasids used smaller stones in their walls, and their building technique was less fine. In any case, Seligman says, the change led to decline and ultimately to collapse of the Yavneh wine industry.

Note that it isn’t that conquerors rode into town, razing the vats and burning the vines. It’s that the local population underwent ideological change: some had been Jewish, some Christian and some Samaritan, but gradually the town adopted Islam. And as the wine factory fell into disuse and ruin, new buildings were erected atop its facilities.

An Abbasid-period arch discovered at the site.Credit: Ilan Assayag

“We have a Muslim period even if we haven’t found Muslim artifacts per se,” Seligman says. Nor is there any proof that acculturation is responsible for the collapse of the wine industry, here and in the Negev too, by the way. But that seems to have been the likely scenario, and by the seventh century, it seems the story of the great wine factory of Yavneh was truly over.

In one way or another, going by discoveries of crude kilns that were thousands of years old, the site had served an industrial purpose at least since the Middle Bronze period, says Nadav-Ziv: the time of the Egyptian New Kingdom and the Canaanites.

“Usually, in Middle Bronze sites, you find one kiln in a village. Here we didn’t find the village, but we found four, maybe five kilns one by another,” she says – again, in the terms of the time, an industrial quantity.

She adds that the Middle Bronze Age kilns weren’t that good. They’d use a kiln once or twice (albeit to make as many as dozens or a few hundred artifacts at a time), then it would become useless and they’d build another one.

A broken pottery dump at the site. Individual pots were the plastic bottles of their day.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Anyway, in Yavneh one finds the hallmarks of industrial activity, potting, that far back – from the Middle Bronze through the Canaanites and the Romans, when the city also hosted the Sanhedrin; and come the Byzantines, the site was upgraded to a wine mega-factory.

The residential areas of these people haven’t been found yet; only their industry. And that was the end of it. There are no signs of catastrophe, just of abandonment. The people lived on, wherever they did it; the industry did not.

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