In November last year, archaeologists excavating a Canaanite palace site at Tel Kabri in Galilee, Israel, had discovered a room filled with 40 jars, which they believed to be the largest Bronze Age wine cellar ever found. The dig is particularly interesting because the room had been sealed with rubble by some cataclysmic event, perhaps an earthquake, and the contents of the jars had remained relatively sterile for 3,700 years. The residues would be susceptible to accurate chemical analysis.
Traces of tartaric and syringic acid suggested that these jars had held wine, which was central to social, political and religious practices in many ancient cultures. They had held the equivalent of about 3,000 modern bottles of wine, and the proximity of the cellar to what could have been a palace banquet hall suggested a political use. Literature offers numerous references of political leaders forging bonds with followers by supplying them with alcohol. The most widely known is Beowulf, in which the king’s epithet is “mead-giver”. Therefore, wine-making at Tel Kabri could offer an understanding of both Bronze Age political culture in the region and the technology available. For without technology, there can be no wine. There can only be vinegar.
Last Saturday, after a year of testing at the chemistry labs in Brandeis University, the researchers published their findings on Tel Kabri. The Canaanites had had the capability to produce red and white wines, like their modern counterparts. But they had played around with flavouring agents, preservatives and feedstock other than grape, which were popular in the ancient world and would tremendously widen the ambit of modern fine dining if they were resurrected. Now, red goes with meat and white with fish and vegetables. It is like the old days, when you could have an Ambassador or a Fiat, and were happy with the illusion of choice.
The discovery of methyl syringate in the Tel Kabri jars suggests that honey was an ingredient. Other candidates include storax, mint, cyperus root, cinnamon and juniper berries. The last is widely used in northern Europe to flavour gins. Besides, terebinth may have been used as a preservative. These residues, and their uniformity across several jars, suggest that the Canaanites were capable of standardising complex chemical processes on a large scale.
Winemaking, which began in 6,000 BC in the Caucasus region, was probably humanity’s first brush with industrial chemistry. It requires much more rigour