Excavating the Ancient Near East’s Oldest Wine Cellar: The Results of the 2015 Season at Tel Kabri

“A lot more jars in a lot more rooms.”—Eric Cline

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The Tel Kabri excavations have uncovered the oldest and largest wine cellar in the ancient Near East, as part of the storage rooms of the Middle Bronze Age Canaanite palace. In this post, excavation participant Henry Curtis Pelgrift provides a report on the results of the 2015 field season at Tel Kabri, a site located in the western Galilee of Israel. For more on Kabri’s 2015 season, read “Tel Kabri: The 2015 Season—Weeks 1 and 2,” “Journey to Jerusalem: A Tel Kabri Dig Weekend” and “Closing Down Kabri: The Last Week of the 2015 Season at Tel Kabri.”


 
kabri-dwest-labeled

Aerial view of Area D-West at Tel Kabri with rooms labeled. Labels by Henry Curtis Pelgrift. Source: Tel Kabri Expedition 2015 Preliminary Report, p. 1. Photo: Griffin Aerial Imaging/SkyView Photography Ltd.

The final tally for 2015 is in at Tel Kabri’s now-famous palace wine cellar, the oldest and largest in the Ancient Near East. A total of at least 110 storage jars have been discovered in four storage rooms in the 2015 and 2013 seasons!

As of the beginning of the 2015 season, the Tel Kabri team had uncovered 40 wine jars, all found in a single storage room in 2013. But when the 2015 season got under way, new jars began coming up in rapid succession, and more storage rooms began to materialize quickly. In his July 3rd Facebook post, codirector Eric Cline signaled the exciting news when he said that we had found “a lot more jars in a lot more rooms.”

Shortly after the dig ended, the Kabri team released its preliminary report for 2015 on the Kabri website, and this gave the numbers. At least 70 additional jars had been found in 2015, and at least three additional storage rooms had been discovered, bringing the totals for the 2015 and 2013 seasons to at least 110 jars in four rooms, as mentioned above. (See the diagram of the storage area below.) The three additional rooms (2520, 2533 and 2546 in the diagram) are all connected to the original storage room (room 2440) and form a single complex, which has been dubbed the
southern storage complex.

kabri-dwest-diagram

Official Area D-west top plan diagram for the 2015 excavation season. Source: Tel Kabri Expedition 2015 Preliminary Report, p. 3.

Intriguingly, the team also found stone structures to the north, which are separated from the southern complex by a “transition unit” and could include a fifth storage room, which may be part of a separate northern storage complex.

Some 80 samples were taken for organic residue analysis from the 70 jars, but the results won’t be known until the early fall. A lot of the jars look the same as those that we found in 2013, so they might contain wine—but that’s just an educated guess at the moment—and we’re not sure about the others—they could contain olive oil or something else entirely. We’ll just have to wait for the analyses to be completed, hopefully in time to be reported at the American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting and at the BAS Bible and Archaeology Fest (where Prof. Cline will be the plenary speaker) in Atlanta, GA in November.

The work this season did not unlock all the mysteries of the storage area—not by a long shot! On the agenda for 2017 will be the task of determining whether the northern structures represent a storage room or perhaps even a northern storage complex. As described below, we will also need to investigate walls discovered beneath the southern storage complex to determine whether they belong to an earlier phase of the palace and whether they might have been part of an earlier storage facility. We will also need to work our way west to investigate possible additional rooms—perhaps storage rooms—at the western edge of the excavated storage area.

The excavation at Tel Kabri is a joint project of The George Washington University (GWU), the University of Haifa and Brandeis University, and is codirected by Eric Cline of GWU and Assaf Yasur-Landau of the University of Haifa, with Andrew Koh of Brandeis as associate director.

After the 2015 results were announced, codirector Yasur-Landau summed it all up when he wrote in an email to me, “Excavating the Kabri palace is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn about Canaanite economy and rulership.”


 
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to volunteer on an archaeological dig? I Volunteered For This?! Life on an Archaeological Dig is a free eBook that gives you the lowdown on what to expect from life at a dig site. You’ll be glad to have this informative, amusing and sometimes touching collection of articles by archaeological dig volunteers.


 

The Southern Storage Complex

kabri-dwest-detail-2

Area D-West storage rooms south to north. Rooms 2546, 2533, 2520 and 2440 are visible, with wall 2441 on the right side of photo and 2540 visible just over the fence. Source: Tel Kabri Expedition 2015 Preliminary Report, p. 4.

The preliminary report confirms that the main focus of the 2015 season was to examine the structural surroundings of the original wine storage room (2440 in the diagram) in order to determine whether it was a single isolated wine storage room or was part of a complex of several rooms. As mentioned above, when room 2440 was excavated in 2013, 40 wine storage jars were found there. In 2013, the Kabri team had also found the northwest corner of adjoining room 2520 (see the diagram) but could not tell whether it was a separate room or part of room 2440.

Based on the discoveries in 2015, the report concludes that room 2440 was not a single isolated storage room but part of a larger southern storage complex comprised of at least four rooms. There may be even more, but the fourth (southernmost) room goes underneath the modern road, and we’ll have to see what happens on the other side in 2017. (It might then be time for a riddle, e.g., “Why did the archaeologist cross the road?”)

The report goes on to say that the southern complex was built in the final phase of the palace as a “unit” during Middle Bronze II, likely in the 17th century B.C. It was destroyed—or abandoned—around the same period and collapsed on the storage jars.

As readers can see from the diagram, the four storage rooms in the southern complex were built all in one line, with a single long wall (2441 in the diagram) serving as the eastern wall of all four rooms. Gaps between the easternmost ends of the walls that separate the rooms (W2450, 2502 and 2540) and the long wall (2441) served as passageways between the rooms forming the complex.

There are no doors or other breaks in wall 2441—the longest wall in Area D-West at 17 meters—that would allow passage from the four storage rooms out to the east and to the ceremonial part of the palace. According to the preliminary report, the design of the complex, with its entrance away from the ceremonial area of the palace, suggests that the storage complex functioned separately from the ceremonial parts of the palace.

Northern Structures: A Northern Complex?

kabri-room2546

Room 2546 with jars in the ground. Source: Tel Kabri Expedition 2015 Preliminary Report, p. 9.

To the north of the southern storage complex lies a series of stone structures, including a room (2524 in the diagram) with a plaster floor. The entrance to the northern structures lies between the ends of two walls. (W2500 and W2446 in the diagram.) The plaster floor of this room tilted into a 19th-century A.D. terrace and pit running from east to west. On the floor to the south of the pit and terrace were a large storage jar without handles and fragments from other jars. To the north was evidence of a collapse and three small storage jars turned upside down, which may have fallen from a shelf or a second floor above.

Transition Area

Between the southern complex and the northern structures is a transition area. It is in the shape of a trapezoid, with a longer edge on the eastern side (1.5 m) than on the western side (1 m). Its beaten earth floor marks the boundary between the plaster floors of the southern complex and the northern structures. Several storage jars were found in the eastern part of the transition area (excavated in 2013), and more were found in the western part (excavated in 2015).

An Additional Complex to the West?

Beyond the western end of wall 2500 (a wall in the northern area) is a passage to an area to its south that has not yet been excavated. In 2017, we may be able to excavate it and determine whether this is an additional room and, if so, whether it was a storage room—perhaps the beginning of another storage complex, for wine or something else—or whether it served some wholly different purpose.


 
Take a trip to the trenches of Tel Kabri with BAS editor Noah Wiener to learn about fieldwork at Kabri, from field methodologies to travel in Israel.


 

The Probe

Three of the rooms of the southern complex all have raised ridges, or “humps,” running from east to west in the middle of their floors. Because these looked so strange and out of place, the dig directors had a hunch near the end of the season (think “crop marks” in a field) and decided to test it on the next to last day. A 2×1 m probe was dug in the floor of one of the rooms (room 2533) at right angles to the hump. The probe showed that the hump was caused by the remains of an earlier wall (2549 in the diagram) running beneath the plaster floor; the floor had sagged on either side of it, but remained firm right above it (just like how crop marks in a field can indicate buried walls and ditches).

kabri-room2533

Room 2533 with all jars removed and prior to the opening of the probe, which will be in the upper portion of the room as it is seen in this image. Source: Tel Kabri Expedition 2015 Preliminary Report, p. 7.

kabri-room2533-finds

The probe in Room 2533 with finds still in the ground. The probe was excavated after aerial photos were taken. Source: Tel Kabri Expedition 2015 Preliminary Report, p. 10.

The probe showed that next to the earlier wall were charred mudbricks and partially burnt wood and other organic matter. There were also fragments of jars crushed against the wall, suggesting that the area had collapsed and been destroyed by a fire.

This wall (2549 in the diagram) may date to the preceding (penultimate) phase of the palace. If the humps in the other two rooms were also caused by walls dating to the same earlier phase, as they most likely do, then there might have been an earlier set of rooms in that penultimate phase—perhaps an earlier storage complex set slightly off-kilter from the ones that we’ve been excavating this season, which might have been destroyed by a fire.

Double Shift System

The preliminary report describes the ingenious double shift system used by our team through the first three weeks of the season, which is described in my first post. The report adds that by using this system, the team had enough time to perform a series of tests on the jars before they were removed from the ground. These included extraction of ceramic samples for residue and petrographic analysis, and of soil samples for palynological and residue analysis as well as for wet-sieving and flotation to recover zooarchaeological and archaeobotanical materials.

Organic Residue Analysis

As I mentioned, the report notes that organic residue analysis has yet to be performed on the 80 samples that were taken during the 2015 season. The previous residue analysis of samples taken from jars found in 2013 in room 2440 showed that they had all contained wine. While it would make sense that the 2015 jars were also used for wine, the residue analysis results are needed to confirm this.

kabri-sydney-thatcher

The George Washington University student Sydney Thatcher assisting in the extraction of the last few jars in Room 2533. Source: Tel Kabri Expedition 2015 Preliminary Report, p. 8.

The 80 samples taken from the 2015 vessels were from large storage jars, just as in 2013, but also from smaller jars and fineware vessels. The preliminary report describes some interesting methodological experiments that were done with the samples taken for residue analysis on the 2015 jars. For example, in some cases, two adjoining sherds from a vessel were tested: with one, the whole sherd was tested, while with the other, an alternative widely-used method was followed, and it was ground into powder and then tested.

Another experiment picked up on the observation in 2013 that sherds from upper parts of a jar produced weaker results than sherds from lower parts, and so in 2015, sherds have been taken from both upper and lower parts of several jars, and the test results will be compared. In another set of experiments, a large number of soil samples from inside and outside two jars found in room 2520 were taken for both palynological and residue analysis. Finally, several sherds that adjoined other sherds that will be tested this year have now been saved for testing in 2017 in order to measure the extent of degradation of extracted residues over the two years.

In general, the report anticipates that the 80 samples taken for residue analysis may yield test results that add to our understanding of the economy of the Kabri palace.

Other Implications of the Finds

The preliminary report also identifies other implications of the discoveries. For example, the jars represent an extensive sampling of pottery types from the final phase of the palace, adding to the typology for that phase. In addition, the study of palynological and other microscopic materials may contribute to our understanding of the processes of deposition and site formation in the storage rooms. Finally the report anticipates that short-lived organic samples from the rooms may allow more precise radiocarbon dating for the final two phases of the palace and perhaps add to our knowledge of the absolute dating of the ancient Near East in the Middle Bronze Age.
 


 
Excavations at Tel Kabri have uncovered fragments of painted plaster reflecting an Aegean art style seen on Cycladic and Minoan frescoes. Read more >>
 


 
Henry PelgriftHenry Curtis Pelgrift received his M.A. in Mediterranean archaeology from University College London in 2014 and his B.A. in archaeology from the George Washington University in 2012. He is back for his fourth season at Tel Kabri, having alternated between Kabri and Tel Megiddo every summer since 2009. Henry’s picture appeared on the cover of the January/February 2014 “Dig” issue of BAR. He has also excavated in Italy, Jordan and Cyprus.
 


 

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