(Maggie Fox/Reuters and Karine Simonian/RFE/RL) - Archeologists have unearthed the oldest wine-making facility ever found, using biochemical techniques to identify a dry red vintage made about 6,000 years ago in what is now southern Armenia.
The excavation paints a picture of a complex society where mourners tasted a special vintage made at a caveside cemetery, the researchers reported on Tuesday in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
“This is the world's oldest known installation to make wine,” Gregory Areshian of the University of California Los Angeles, who helped lead the study, said in a telephone interview with Reuters.
Carbon dating showed a desiccated grape vine found near a wine press was grown around 4000 BC, his team reported. This makes it 1,000 years older than any other wine-making facility discovered, the team from Armenia, the United States and Ireland reported.
“The comprehensive tests give us reason to be convinced that wine was produced there 6,000 years ago,” Boris Gasparian, an Armenian archaeologist who led the team, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
The team found the world's oldest leather shoe, about 5,500 years old, at the same cave complex last year. The archaeological site, known as Areni-1, is located in the wine-growing Vayots Dzor province. Areni is also the name of Armenia’s most popular sort of vine used in winemaking.
The wine press would have held a few liters of juice and crushed grapes, likely working with the time-honored technique of barefoot stomping, Areshian said.
“This was a relatively small installation related to the ritual inside the cave. For daily consumption they would have had much larger wine presses in the regular settlement," said Areshian, who was deputy prime minister in the first government of the independent Republic of Armenia in 1991.
Gasparian likewise suggested that wine was distilled at Areni-1 for funeral rites, arguing that his team unearthed human remains around the ancient winery. “The idea was not to just produce and store wine but to use it in the funeral ceremonies,” he said.
Armenia --A view of the wine press (C, with vat slightly to the right), dating to roughly 4100 B.C., that was found in the cave among tombs and jars containing dried fruit, undated
In Gasparian’s words, the expedition has also initiated ongoing DNA tests on grape seeds and skins found there to determine the sort of the grapes and whether it is similar to vines presently grown in Vayots Dzor. “A preliminary examination of the seeds shows that we already had cultivated sorts of grapes 6,000 years ago,” he said.
“We also know that still, in the villages in the vicinity, the culture of wine is very old and traditional,” noted Areshian.
For Avag Harutiunian, the chairman of the Armenian Union of Winemakers, the Areni-1 find, which has grabbed headlines in international media, is also a publicity coup for Armenia. He said the Armenian government should use it to promote Armenian wines beyond the former Soviet Union
“We could occupy the high-value niche in the international wine market,” Harutiunian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “Our resources are so scarce that we have no right to produce cheap wine.”
The expedition, paid for in part by the National Geographic Society, also uncovered copper processing equipment. Areshian said the team will detail those findings later.
The wine press itself is a shallow clay basin about one meter in diameter, surrounded by grape seeds and dried-out grape vines.
The team found not only grave mounds nearby but also obsidian tools -- indicating some complicated trade was going on. The closest source of obsidian, a black glassy mineral, is 60 to 70 kilometers away, a three-day walk, Areshian said. “We can say that this was a quite complex society formed by multiple communities,” he said.