BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Biblical Kings Drank Vanilla-Flavored Wine

Study reveals that Jerusalem’s kings added vanilla to their wine

Storage Jars

Collection of wine jars after the restoration. Courtesy Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority.

It might seem strange, but in the days of the biblical kings, wine flavored with vanilla was a hit. We are not just talking about vanilla overtones, though. According to a recent study by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and Tel Aviv University, the kings and royals of biblical Judah directly infused their wine with this luxury spice. This is despite the valuable spice having previously been unknown from the Old World before the time of Christopher Columbus. The study demonstrates the wealth and power of Judah and its biblical kings in the days right before the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.

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For thousands of years, wine was a luxury item in the ancient Near East. This was no different during the time of the biblical kings. The use of vanilla, however, is very unexpected and speaks to the wealth and extensive long-distance trade networks of ancient Judah. As vanilla was not grown in the Levant or the wider ancient Near East, it may have arrived from India or tropical Africa, likely via the long-distance trade routes that passed through the Negev, Arabia, and beyond. The archaeological context of the discovery (discussed below) shows that vanilla-infused wine was widely consumed by Jerusalem’s wealthy during the reign of King Zedekiah, the last king to rule over Jerusalem before the Babylonian destruction.

 

Photography and editing: Asaf Peri, City of David

While finding traces of vanilla used in late Iron Age Jerusalem is a remarkable discovery, it is not the first time that such exotic spices have been found in the lands of the Bible. As Yuval Gadot of Tel Aviv University told Haaretz, vanilla was previously identified in burials from the major Canaanite city of Megiddo, while evidence of cinnamon was uncovered at the Phoenician site of Tel Dor.

 

An Unlikely Discovery

Jar fragments

Jar fragments uncovered in the excavation. Courtesy Eliyahu Yanai, City of David.

The evidence of vanilla-infused wine was discovered in two separate excavations within the City of David. In both cases, excavators had uncovered numerous large wine jars within buildings destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. One of the excavated buildings was an impressive two-story structure, which may have served as a bureau for senior royal officials. The team discovered 15 large storage jars in a room that may have served as a wine cellar. Several of the jars bore rosette seal impressions, indicating that they belonged to the biblical kings of Judah. The number and quality of the jars indicate both the economic and social importance of wine in ancient Judah.

Although it was assumed that the jars had held wine or oil, the team decided to carry out chemical tests on eight of the jars. The tests identified the molecular remnants of various liquids and ingredients that had been preserved on the interiors of the vessels. As expected, the tests showed that the jars had indeed been used to store wine. What surprised the researchers, however, were organic residues that indicated the wine had been infused with vanilla. According to Ayala Amir, a doctoral student at Tel Aviv University who carried out the tests, “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.” Furthermore, several of the jars showed evidence of having been reused multiple times, whether to store wine or other liquids, including olive oil. These findings indicate the complexity of ancient Judah’s economy and the biblical kings’ sophisticated system for the collection and redistribution of goods.

 

Jar Handle

A jar handle with a rosette impression, a seal commonly associated with goods owned or supplied by the kings of Judah. Courtesy Eliyahu Yanai, City of David.

According to Gadot and Dr. Yiftah Shalev of the IAA, “To date, we have not had direct evidence of the use made of such jars. Some suggested wine or olive oil, but there was no direct evidence of the vessels themselves. Molecular analysis now allows us to expand the boundaries of knowledge and imagination.”

 


Read more in Bible History Daily:

How Bad Was the Babylonian Exile?

Let the Wine Flow

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

The City of David After Five Years of Digging

Newly Discovered: A Fortified City from King David’s Time

Searching for Cana: Where Jesus Turned Water into Wine

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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12 Responses

  1. Les Train says:

    unless it was castoreum, from a secretion from the beaver. before it was hunted to near extinction, the beaver was found across Eurasia. Maybe there was trade in the ‘goo’ whence derives the castoreum. Romans used it to burn in their lamps to smell like, well, vanilla.

  2. Marion Belk says:

    I suspect they obtained vanilla the same way the Egyptian pharaohs obtained cocaine (traces found in hair follicles). There was pre-Colombian trade between the old and new worlds.

  3. Nathan Steinmeyer says:

    NOTE: The authors of the original publication (which did go through peer review in the highly regarded journal “PlosOne”) do acknowledge that vanilla was previously not at all known to be available to the Old World before the arrival of Columbus. The archaeologists do still assert that this was “vanilla.” It will certainly be interesting to see the reaction and discussion by the scientific community and further publications by the team.

  4. Dennis B. Swaney says:

    They probably used VANILLIN, not “Vanilla” as vanillin was used in the second millennium BCE Canaan. See: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2352409X18307557

  5. Consteacher says:

    doesn’t Madagascar demonstrate a vibrant vanilla trade today? why not then?

  6. Ted C Earle says:

    The History of Vanilla. Vanilla is a native of South and Central America and the Caribbean; and the first people to have cultivated it seem to have been the Totonacs of Mexico’s east coast. The Aztecs acquired vanilla when they conquered the Totonacs in the 15th Century; the Spanish, in turn, got it when they conquered the Aztecs.
    National Geographic
    It’s always been identified with the “Columbian Exchange”
    Maybe it was some other orchid seed?

  7. Donna Dickerson says:

    All the comments are correct. Vanilla comes from the beans of an orchid that grows in the tropics of Mexico.

  8. John Reynolds says:

    Vanilla is a new world spice. How in the world did it get to the Middle East?

    1. Bill says:

      Vanilla is a new world product so it’s not that. Vanillin, the main flavor component of Vanilla, is also found in smaller amounts in cloves that were already being imported into the region long before this time.

  9. George Smietana says:

    How did they obtain the vanilla? Vanilla comes from a plant, that was only found in Mexico at that time. Could there be another ancient source for vanilla? I’am thinking about the Phoenicians sailing across the Atlantic to trade with the new world. Could the Phoenicians have brought the idea of pyramids to the new world? Maybe the Phoenicians also sailed to Wales to trade for Zinc, so they could make bronze. Wales had zinc mines, that were source of the zinc needed to make bronze. There were later zinc trade routes , from Briton, across Gaul, that were known to Julius Caesar.

  10. Craig Watters says:

    Received a story this morning concerning vanilla in wine: how is this possible, vanilla is a New World plant and was not brought to the Old World until after its discovery in the late 1600s?

    1. Ted C Earle says:

      Vanilla is the seed of a particular “new-world” orchid. Maybe some “old-world” orchid seeds were used?
      The vanilla we know today has traditionally been identified with the the Columbian Exchange from Mexico – possibly by Cortes. It was cultivated in Mexico.

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12 Responses

  1. Les Train says:

    unless it was castoreum, from a secretion from the beaver. before it was hunted to near extinction, the beaver was found across Eurasia. Maybe there was trade in the ‘goo’ whence derives the castoreum. Romans used it to burn in their lamps to smell like, well, vanilla.

  2. Marion Belk says:

    I suspect they obtained vanilla the same way the Egyptian pharaohs obtained cocaine (traces found in hair follicles). There was pre-Colombian trade between the old and new worlds.

  3. Nathan Steinmeyer says:

    NOTE: The authors of the original publication (which did go through peer review in the highly regarded journal “PlosOne”) do acknowledge that vanilla was previously not at all known to be available to the Old World before the arrival of Columbus. The archaeologists do still assert that this was “vanilla.” It will certainly be interesting to see the reaction and discussion by the scientific community and further publications by the team.

  4. Dennis B. Swaney says:

    They probably used VANILLIN, not “Vanilla” as vanillin was used in the second millennium BCE Canaan. See: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2352409X18307557

  5. Consteacher says:

    doesn’t Madagascar demonstrate a vibrant vanilla trade today? why not then?

  6. Ted C Earle says:

    The History of Vanilla. Vanilla is a native of South and Central America and the Caribbean; and the first people to have cultivated it seem to have been the Totonacs of Mexico’s east coast. The Aztecs acquired vanilla when they conquered the Totonacs in the 15th Century; the Spanish, in turn, got it when they conquered the Aztecs.
    National Geographic
    It’s always been identified with the “Columbian Exchange”
    Maybe it was some other orchid seed?

  7. Donna Dickerson says:

    All the comments are correct. Vanilla comes from the beans of an orchid that grows in the tropics of Mexico.

  8. John Reynolds says:

    Vanilla is a new world spice. How in the world did it get to the Middle East?

    1. Bill says:

      Vanilla is a new world product so it’s not that. Vanillin, the main flavor component of Vanilla, is also found in smaller amounts in cloves that were already being imported into the region long before this time.

  9. George Smietana says:

    How did they obtain the vanilla? Vanilla comes from a plant, that was only found in Mexico at that time. Could there be another ancient source for vanilla? I’am thinking about the Phoenicians sailing across the Atlantic to trade with the new world. Could the Phoenicians have brought the idea of pyramids to the new world? Maybe the Phoenicians also sailed to Wales to trade for Zinc, so they could make bronze. Wales had zinc mines, that were source of the zinc needed to make bronze. There were later zinc trade routes , from Briton, across Gaul, that were known to Julius Caesar.

  10. Craig Watters says:

    Received a story this morning concerning vanilla in wine: how is this possible, vanilla is a New World plant and was not brought to the Old World until after its discovery in the late 1600s?

    1. Ted C Earle says:

      Vanilla is the seed of a particular “new-world” orchid. Maybe some “old-world” orchid seeds were used?
      The vanilla we know today has traditionally been identified with the the Columbian Exchange from Mexico – possibly by Cortes. It was cultivated in Mexico.

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