How Volcanoes and Plague Killed the Byzantine Wine Industry in Israel

Byzantine settlers in the Negev were making good coin by growing grapes and exporting booze around the world 1,500 years ago. Then came eruptions and the Justinian Plague

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Ruins of a Byzantine church at Nessana (Nitzana)
Ruins of a Byzantine church at Nessana (Nitzana)Credit: Eliahu Hershkowitz

When you think of good wine, you think of the traditional vintages of France and Italy, or perhaps the bold, New-World flavors coming out of Chile and Australia. You wouldn’t necessarily expect to uncork a fine bottle from deep in the deserts of the southern Levant. Yet, more than 1,500 years ago, Byzantine towns in the Negev desert developed a booming industry that farmed grapes and apparently exported a popular wine that reached markets across Europe and the Middle East.

New research by Israeli archaeologists has traced the meteoric rise of commercial viticulture in this arid region and its rapid decline in the mid sixth century, just as the Byzantine empire and the rest of the world were hit by a plague pandemic and a volcanic winter. The study published Monday in the U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences adds to growing evidence on the causes behind the mysterious disappearance of the once thriving Christian communities in the Negev.

Once linked to the Islamic conquest of the Levant in the seventh century, the economic and demographic decline of this region now appears to have been irreversible already long before the arrival of the Muslim armies.

The new research also touches upon, although does not resolve, a broader debate on the actual effects of the so-called Plague of Justinian, which anecdotally ravaged the Byzantine empire starting in 541. Named after the Eastern Roman emperor at the time, this first recorded pandemic of bubonic plague in human history supposedly killed millions across Eurasia and disrupted economies and trade networks, although evidence of its effects has been hard to find in the archaeological record, leaving experts questioning the disease’s true magnitude.

Taking in the trash

More than 1,700 years ago, small permanent settlements in the Negev became boom towns as local farmers made the desert bloom using a complex system of canals, terraces and reservoirs designed to capture and store the infrequent but violent flash floods in this arid area. But within four centuries or so these prosperous communities were mostly abandoned. Since 2015, a team of researchers headed by Professor Guy Bar-Oz, a Haifa University archaeologist, has been trying to shed light on the social, economic and environmental factors behind the rise and fall of the Byzantine Negev. The project, named “Crisis on the Margins of the Byzantine Empire,” is supported by the European Research Council and focuses mainly on applying cutting-edge scientific methods to what is the most precious of finds for archaeologists: trash

Particularly in the dry desert climate, which helps preserve organic remains, the stratified landfills in which ancient inhabitants disposed of their garbage can give archaeologists a clearer picture of the local economy, the size of the community, people’s diets, culture and environment.

“Your trash says a lot about you. In the ancient trash mounds of the Negev, there is a record of residents’ daily lives – in the form of plant remains, animal remains, ceramic sherds, and more,” explains Bar-Oz. The project has yielded a slew of finds and last year the team published a study on the chronology of the landfills around the city Elusa, or Halutza in Hebrew, which was once the capital of the Byzantine Negev. The radiocarbon dating of the layers in the dumps proved that organized trash collection at Elusa ended in the middle of the sixth century, suggesting that the region entered a deep crisis right around the time of Justinian’s Plague and some 100 years before the Muslim conquest.

The mosaic of Kissufim near Gaza, depicting Orbikon the camel driver, captures the overland transport of the products of viticulture in the region during Late Antiquity.  Artifactual remnants of the two main components of Orbikon's load – grapes and Gaza jars – further illuminate this phenomenon
Kissufim mosaic, showing Orbikon the camel driver, transporting grapes and Gaza jarsCredit: Daniel Fuks / Bar-Ilan Universit

Now, the newly published study in PNAS indicates that the rise and fall of Elusa and nearby villages is closely correlated with the boom and bust of local viticulture.

It was already known that the Byzantine desert farmers were capable of growing grapes and making booze. Ancient chronicles describe the vineyards of the Negev and several wine presses have been uncovered in the area by archaeologists, says Daniel Fuks, an archaeobotany PhD student at Bar-Ilan University who led the study. But now for the first time we have evidence of the truly massive scale of commercial viticulture in the Negev and its connection to international trade.

View of Shivta, showing the main church
View of Shivta, showing the main churchCredit: Guy Bar-Oz / University of Haifa

The great grape rush

Fuks and colleagues counted thousands of grape seeds that were found in the garbage dumps around three Byzantine towns: Elusa, Shivta and Nessana. They then compared the percentage of grape pips to that of cereal grains found in the landfills to track the growth of vineyard farming.

“Imagine you’re an ancient farmer with a plot of land to feed your family. On most of it, you plant cereals like wheat and barley because that’s how you get your bread,” Fuks says. “But one day you realize that you could sell the excellent wine you produce, for export, and earn enough cash to buy bread and a bit more. Little by little you expand your vineyard and move from subsistence farming to commercial viticulture. If we look at your trash and count the seeds, we’ll discover a rise in the proportion of grape pips relative to cereal grains. And that’s exactly what we found.”

Nearly 10,000 seeds of grape (a), barley grains (b), and wheat grains (c) were retrieved and counted from 11 trash mounds at three sites in the Negev
Nearly 10,000 seeds of grape (a), barley grains (b), and wheat grains (c) were retrieved and counted from 11 trash mounds at three sites in the NegevCredit: Daniel Fuks

The task was not an easy one, notes Professor Ehud Weiss, head of the archaeobotany lab at Bar-Ilan and a co-author of the study. “Grain by grain must be sorted through endless sediment samples, looking for seeds, identifying them and counting each one,” Weiss says.

For the period from the first to the third century, this painstaking survey found a single pip, constituting 0.5 percent of the total count of grape and cereals. But then, in the fourth and fifth century, the relative amount of grape seeds climbs to 14 percent and peaks in the early sixth century at between 25 and 43 percent in three different trash mounds, the study reports.

In addition to counting seeds, the researchers looked at the pottery remains in the landfills, and particularly at the frequency of oblong amphorae known as Gaza jars, which were used in the Byzantine period to export Levantine goods from the  Mediterranean port of Gaza (hence the name).

Gaza jars have been found in excavations as far as Germany, France, Britain and Yemen, and the main export they contained was vinum Gazentum (Gaza wine in Latin), a sweet white beverage that was in great demand across the Byzantine empire and Europe.

Sure enough, in the landfills of the Negev settlements, the percentage of Gaza jars in the pottery fragments increases in step with the rise of grape production, indicating that the local rise in viticulture was related to this lucrative international trade, Fuks and colleagues report.

But then, in the middle of the sixth century, something changes. The proportion of grape seeds plummets to below 15 percent and continues to decline in subsequent periods at most sites. Gaza jars all but disappear from the landfills and are replaced by so-called bag-shaped jars, which were less suited for transportation and export.

Ancient staircase to top of Tell Nessana (Nitzana)
Ancient staircase to top of Tell Nessana (Nitzana)Credit: Eliahu Hershkowitz

The timing of the collapse of the Negev grape industry is enough to belie old theories that linked the end of winemaking in the area to the Islamic conquest, which happened a century later, and to the Muslim taboo on drinking alcohol, Bar-Oz notes. In fact, at landfills in Nessana, the share of grape pips rises again to around a third in the Early Islamic period. That could well be because this settlement continued to house a Christian monastery, which must have been a major local consumer of sacramental wine.

Worst. Century. Ever

So what caused the Negev grape bonanza to sour? The researchers can only speculate, but the economic downturn may have been linked to the many destabilizing factors that hit the Byzantine empire and its surrounding regions in the mid sixth century.

Between 536 and 545, Eurasia experienced the coldest decade in the last 2,000 years, which according to ancient chroniclers caused crop failures, famine and general economic mayhem. This so-called “Late Antique Little Ice Age” was likely sparked by at least two colossal volcanic eruptions that spewed gases and dust into the atmosphere, causing global cooling

The outbreak of the Justinianic Plague also coincides with the decline of the Negev’s economic fortunes. While scholars disagree on the scale of the death and disruption caused by the pandemic, even conservative estimates suggest that in some places, such as the Byzantine capital of Constantinople and the port of Alexandria in Egypt, the disease caused the population to plummet by around 20 percent during the first outbreak, Fuks says.

It is possible that these phenomena had some direct impact on the Negev towns: the plague may have caused labor shortages, while global cooling may have increased precipitation and severe flash-flooding, damaging the delicate irrigation system of the area. But there is little archaeological evidence so far that this happened. It is more likely that the wine industry suffered from a drop in global demand in luxury goods due to the general crisis brought about by the combination of plague, climate change, as well as the multiple destructive conflicts the Byzantines and neighboring powers were engaged in. 

It bears noting that there were other areas, closer to the Mediterranean coast, that grew grapes for Gaza wine, while the settlements in the central Negev were probably the most distant production spots, and therefore the more expensive ones from which to transport product.

“If demand from major importers suddenly collapses, then that’s enough to leave the peripheral Negev desert out of the picture, even as more central areas may have continued to export,” Fuks says.

We don’t know how much the decline of the wine trade contributed to the doom of the desert towns. Some of the declining settlements continued to survive, on a much smaller scale, through the Early Islamic period, until the 11th century. But the crisis of the sixth century was certainly a major blow to the region, which probably relied too much on grape production for economic prosperity, notes Bar-Oz. “It’s a bit like those countries today that rely solely on oil production and don’t prepare for the day when oil runs out or demand drops,” he says. The Negev economy “was too monocultural: despite the arid climate their agricultural methods were sustainable, but their economy was not.”