Excavations uncover the largest winery of the Byzantine world
Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne. Today, southern France is synonymous with excellent wine. But during the Byzantine period (c. fourth–seventh centuries C.E.), great wine came from the Holy Land. Recent excavations at the site of Tel Yavne, located along Israel’s southern coast between Tel Aviv and Ashdod, revealed one of the largest wineries in the ancient world. The winery, excavated by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), covered 2.5 acres and produced as much as 2 million liters of wine a year. The wine was a high-quality white wine, famous throughout the Byzantine world as Gaza wine, since it was shipped from nearby Gaza to the major port cities of the Mediterranean world.
Although other Byzantine-era wineries have been discovered in Israel, Yavne was likely the main production center for Gaza wine. The site features all aspects of wine production, including five large-capacity wine presses, each measuring nearly 2,500 square feet. The wine also would have been produced relatively quickly, within just a few months of the grape harvest, as the Gaza vintage required very little fermentation. The wine was mass produced at Yavneh for about 200 years, in the fifth and sixth centuries C.E., when much of the area was Christian.
The Yavneh winery was well constructed with evidence for extensive planning. Two paved roads through the middle of the site provided easy access to the various wine presses as well as drainage for rainwater. The uniformity and planning of the facility suggests the winery was likely owned by a single person or group rather than being an informal or casual production site. Yavne was well known in history for producing wine, and other wineries and vineyards have been discovered in the area dating back to at least the Persian period (c. 539–332 B.C.E.).
In addition to wine presses, the facility also included four large warehouses and kilns for the mass production of uniform wine jars. Known as Gaza jars, these storage vessels became synonymous with the Gaza wine produced at Yavne. According to excavation co-director Jon Seligman, these jars would have been instantly recognizable, similar to Coke bottles today. Thousands of these jars were made at the site each year, each holding around 12 liters of wine.
The Yavne excavation is one of many salvage excavations that the IAA carries out every year to protect and document archaeological sites that are in the path of development. This particular site was intended to be the location of a new highway. With such an important discovery, however, planners are now proposing to build a bridge over the site. Once the bridge is complete, the IAA plans to turn the site into an archaeological park that can be visited by the public.
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