Judahite Elite in Jerusalem Drank Wine Flavored With Vanilla 2,600 Years Ago

Analysis of smashed wine jars in Jerusalem houses destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. finds unexpected flavor in jars that the rich reused

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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The reconstructed wine jars from the time of King Zedekiah, which were found to contain traces of vanilla.
The reconstructed wine jars from the time of King Zedekiah, which were found to contain traces of vanilla.Credit: Ortal Chalaf
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

In the year 586 B.C.E., the Babylonians laid waste to Jerusalem in a fury at the rebellion by King Zedekiah of Judah. Ahead of which, we learn – at least some of the elites in Jerusalem were drinking their wine flavored with exotic vanilla, archaeologists revealed on Tuesday.

This startling discovery was a result of residue analysis of shattered wine jars from the time of King Zedekiah, found in two destroyed buildings in Iron Age Jerusalem, researchers from Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority announced. Signals of vanilla were found in five of eight jars, says Dr. Yiftah Shalev of the IAA.

Its presence was a surprise, but not a shock in the sense that traces of vanilla had been detected in graves in Megiddo dating to the Bronze Age, around 500 years earlier, Prof. Yuval Gadot of Tel Aviv University explains.

These jars date to the Iron Age. In some cases, their handles are marked with the rosette seal impression of the Kingdom of Judah. That symbol indicates that the clay jar and its content, the wine, were the possession of the royal Judahite administration.

How secure is the identification of the vanilla? One hundred percent, Gadot answers. But where the flavoring came from is anybody’s guess. Harvested as pods produced by vanilla plants, it isn’t known to have been cultivated back then and had to be harvested from the wild. It could have originated in Madagascar or another part of tropical Africa, or India, and then reached Iron Age Judah by long-distance trading from either source.

The rosette seal impression of the Kingdom of Judah, on a wine jar handle.Credit: Dafna Gazit/IAA

Long-distance trading was common then, by sea and by land. From that perspective, finding spices from far, far away is plausible. In this case, the researchers believe the bean was likely imported via Arabia, through the trade route crossing the Negev Desert: possibly under the auspices of Assyrians, or their heirs the Egyptians, or even, possibly, the Babylonians.

Wine-bibbing was common, but vanilla was not: “Its discovery in so many jars in Jerusalem stresses the relative wealth of the residents of Jerusalem at the time,” Shalev says – at least before the irate Babylonians arrived and leveled the city.

Wine evoked mixed feelings in biblical times, as it does today. Psalms 104:15 extols its virtue: “And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, making the face brighter than oil” – a lovely sentiment. The book of Isaiah admonishes: “Woe unto them that are mighty to drink wine, and men of strength to mingle strong drink; that justify the wicked for a reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him” (5:22-23). Hosea is worse: “Harlotry [sensual idolatry], wine, and new wine take away the heart” (4:11). You stand warned.

Cinnamon in Phoenicia

No trace of other spices was detected in these Judahite wine jars, Gadot and Shalev confirm. But it bears noting that the locals of the Levant were augmenting their range of flavors from overseas going back to the Bronze Age, if not before. Cinnamon has been detected in Phoenician flasks found at Tel Dor from 3,000 years ago. The cinnamon residue was in wine jugs, mark you, but in tiny vessels with narrow necks and a capacity of about three tablespoons.

Remnants of the smashed wine jars in Jerusalem. Credit: Eliyahu Yanai/City of David
Restored wine jars.Credit: Dafna Gazit / IAA

The wine jars analyzed in the new study have been dated to roughly the time of King Zedekiah, whose rebellion against the Babylonian overlords about 2,600 years ago did not go well. The vessels were found inside two destroyed buildings, in two different digs in the City of David. The Israel Antiquities Authority is excavating “Beit Shalem” on the eastern slopes of the City of David hill. The other, a joint venture by the IAA and TAU, is at the site formerly known as the Givati parking lot, west of the hill.

All the jars contained chemicals typical of wine, and two, as said, had signals of vanilla bean and seem to have been placed in storage rooms in the two buildings. Both of the buildings show the marks of the furious destruction and the jars had, fittingly to the occasion, been smashed. But residue analysis, a technique that has taken off in recent years, could identify molecules adhering to the clay.

The analysis was performed by Ayala Amir, a doctoral student at Tel Aviv University, performing the tests in laboratories at the Weizmann Institute, Rehovot, and Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan. “Vanilla markers are an unusual find, especially in light of the fire that occurred in the buildings where the jars were found. The results of the analysis of the organic residues allow me to say with confidence that the jars contained wine and that it was seasoned with vanilla,” she said.

Ortal Chalaf and Dr. Joe Uziel were the excavation directors on behalf of the IAA who uncovered one group of jars, on the eastern slopes of the City of David hill. “The opportunity to combine innovative scientific studies examining the contents of jars opened a window for us, to find out what they ate – and, in this case, what they drank – in Jerusalem on the eve of the destruction,” they stated.

The wine jar reassembly line.Credit: Ortal Chalaf

The second set of jars was found by Gadot and Shalev beneath the Givati parking lot, where a sort of surviving two-story building was unearthed. The researchers suggest it may have been an administrative building, which, unlike today’s equivalents, apparently had a wine cellar. More than 15 jars were found there, as well as other storage vessels.

The analysis also revealed that the ancients sensibly reused their pottery jars – big clay jars are a labor to make and lug about. Some of the jars produced signals of having previously held olive oil (the manufacture of olive oil goes back at least 8,000 years).

In short, finding jars of wine is no surprise; discovering that some of the jars had also been used to store olive oil is horse sense. But, as the archaeologists put it: finding vanilla in the wine is amazing.

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