Human beings have been drinking wine for thousands of years, leaving all manner of evidence behind. From literary and historical texts, to mythological and religious works, wine is ever-present on the page. Archeologists have unearthed wine-related objects all across the world, though most have been found around the Mediterranean. In the past 25 years, aided by new technologies, archeologists have found increasingly old evidence of human winemaking and consumption. Some of these finds go back so far — as in the Neolithic Era, which is the final period of the Stone Age! — that they’ve changed our views about early human civilizations. We’ve highlighted 10 famous archeological sites and recovered objects that offer a broad, wine-related tour of the ancient world, starting all the way back in 7,000 BC.
Jiahu (China) – The First Chemical Trace Of Any Fermented Beverage (7000BC)
The oldest archeological site on this list, Jiahu, is locatd in China’s Yellow River valley. It was here that Patrick McGovern, the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s Director of Biomolecular Archaeology, documented chemical evidence of fermented beverages on the insides of pottery jars. The 9,000-year-old concoction was a mix of rice, honey and fruit. Classifying the beverage is tricky, so we’ll quote Dr. McGovern:
You could call this extreme beverage a “Neolithic grog.” It was comprised of honey mead and a combined “beer” or “wine” made from rice, grapes, and hawthorn fruit. Rice is a grain, like wheat and barley, so by that definition it makes a beer (of about 4-5% alcohol), but when it’s fermented to 9-10% and has pronounced aromatic qualities, then it’s more like a wine. Maybe, the best modern comparison is with an aged Belgian ale or a barley wine.
If you’re interested in the ancient history of wine, you should definitely check out Dr. McGovern’s books: Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture & Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages. Or, if you’d like to sample an approximation at what this beverage might have tasted like, try the Chateau Jiahu, which Dogfish Head Brewery makes in collaboration with Dr. McGovern.
Godin Tepe / Hajji Firuz Tepe (Iran) – The Earliest Chemical Evidence Of Wine (5400 BC)
These sites in the Zagros Mountains of northwestern Iran were first excavated in 1936 (Hajji Firuz Tepe) and 1965 (Godin Tepe). While there are significant historical artifacts at both sites, we’re just concerned with the evidence of wine. In 1990, Dr. McGovern and two other colleagues discovered ceramic jars at Godin Tepe. The jars, when chemically analyzed, were found to have contained wine. These jars were dated to 3100 to 3500 BC.
Six years later, McGovern’s team analyzed jars that had been discovered two decades earlier at Hajji Firuz Tepe, by Dr. Mary M. Voigt. In these jars, dated to 5400 BC, they found the residue of two chemicals: tartaric acid, which occurs in grapes, and resin from an evergreen tree. Wine in ancient world was often resonated, similar to the Greek wine Retsina. The results of these tests have been recognized as the earliest conclusive chemical evidence of wine produced by humans – first as early as 3100 to 3500BC and then back further to 5400 BC.
Dikili Tash (Greece) – The Earliest Chemical Evidence Of Wine In Europe (4200 BC)
While excavations at the prehistoric settlement of Dikili Tash, in the Eastern Macedonia region of Greece have been ongoing since the nineteenth century, wine was only recently discovered there. Dated to 4200 BC, the ceramic vases, which contain the residue of “thousands of carbonized grape pips together with the skins,” makes this the oldest chemically confirmed wine in Europe. As Europe, and Greece in particular, play such an outsized role in the history and development of wine, the discovery bears mentioning.
Areni-1 (Armenia) – The World’s Oldest Winery (4100 BC)
This site, in a grave-filled cavern, is the oldest known winery in the world. Soviet military officials explored the cavern decades ago during the Cold War, on a search for caverns to build defense facilities. Modern excavations, which began in 2007, revealed the evidence of winemaking at the site: a grape-treading trough which drains into a 14-15 gallon ceramic vat, storage jars, and pottery shards. Traces of Malvidin, the substance that give red vitis vinifera grapes their color, were found on the ceramic vats. Other evidence recovered at the site includes preserved remains of crushed grapes, seeds and vine leaves. While it may seem odd that a winery would be located adjacent to dozens of graves, archeologists have speculated that the wine produced there played a role in religious ceremonies, as wine commonly has throughout its history.
The Tomb Of King Scorpion I (Egypt) (Circa 3100 BC)
& The Tomb Of Tutankhamun (Egypt) (Circa 1300 BC)
The jars encrusted with wine residue that were found in the tomb of King Scorpion I present early evidence of wine trading. The 300 or so jars in the tomb, which the king intended to take to the afterlife, were made out of clay from Palestine, which implies that the wine itself was imported from vineyards hundreds of miles away.
Domestic cultivation of grapes for wine production in Egypt began around this time, eventually growing into a large, standardized industry. Egyptian wine labels are perhaps the world’s first, and they are quite descriptive. The 26 labeled jars of wine discovered in the tomb of King Tutankhamun include examples such as: “Year Four. Wine of very good quality of the House-of-Aton of the Western River. Chief vintner Khay.”
Other finds in Egypt include amphorae factories, numerous wine presses, and some of the world’s earliest evidence of white wine, as indicated by some of the jars labeled as such in Tutankhamun’s tomb.
The Theater Of Dionysus in Ancient Athens (Greece) (500 BC)
Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, deserves his own article. And that’s without going into Bacchus, the name the Roman’s gave him when they adopted and (seriously) embraced him. Trying to choose a particular archeological find is tough when it comes to the god of wine, so we’re going big, as in the Theatre of Dionysus big. The 17,000-seat amphitheater, which hosted festivals in honor its namesake god, was excavated in the eighteenth century. A controversial restoration project was announced in 2009 and completed in 2012.
Pericles’ Wine Cup – Found In Another Man’s Grave (Greece) (429 BC)
This discovery is quite recent – July of this year – which shows that what we know about wine drinking in the ancient world is always growing and evolving. Pericles was an influential politician, orator, and general during Athens’ Golden Age, which is also sometimes referred to as The Age Of Pericles. In other words, he was an important man. In his military capacity he clashed with Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. During that war he died of the plague (though it’s now believed it might have been some other ailment). Whatever the case, that brings us back to the recently discovered cup that he supped wine out of: it was found, shattered into a dozen pieces, in the grave of a pauper, in a northern suburb of Athens, on Sparta Street. An unfit, ironic end for a good man’s cup.
The Ruins Of Pompeii (Italy) (79 AD)
Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, burying and preserving the then-Roman city of Pompeii in ash and pumice. The site was discovered in 1599, but excavations didn’t begin for another 150 years due to religious concerns. Over the centuries, archeologists have made countless wine-related discoveries, as Pompeii was a major wine producer in Roman times. The city’s fertile lands (being near a volcano is a gift and an occasional curse for winemakers; see Mt. Etna on Sicily) supported numerous wineries, which produced more than enough wine for consumption within the city. Wine from Pompeii was exported up to Rome and other parts of the Empire. Pliny The Elder wrote about the wines in his Natural History:
“As to the wines of Pompeii, they have arrived at their full perfection in ten years, after which they gain nothing by age: they are found also to be productive of headache, which often lasts so long as [noon] of the next day.”
Wrecks Of Roman Dolia Ships (Throughout The Mediterranean) (1st to 3rd Century AD)
Bulk wine often moves around the world today in giant plastic ‘bladders,’ carried in specialized holds on container ships. While this is a fairly recent modern development, the Romans were doing something quite similar two thousand years ago. A dolium was a large ceramic container that the Romans used to transport goods, including wine, when a smaller amphora wouldn’t do. Dolia ranged in size, with some records stating the largest ones capable of carrying nearly 350 gallons of wine. At first the Romans loaded these massive containers into the holds of ships, but as the need to transport more wine over greater distances grew, they eventually began to build ships around the dolia in the first century AD. We know this as there are purpose-built dolia ships among the half dozen or so shipwrecks containing dolia discovered to date. Two notable shipwrecks:
- The Diano Marina near Liguria, Italy: 15 dolia intact, of numerous sizes. The ship’s capacity is estimated at 9,500 gallons, which is the equivalent of nearly 50,000 bottles of wine (47,948 bottles to be exact).
- La Giraglia near Corsica, France: A purpose-built ship with at least 8 dolia built into the hold.
Want to see recovered dolia? Head to the Musée des Docks Romains if you’re ever in Marseille.
The Speyer Wine Bottle: The World’s Oldest Liquid Wine (Germany) (Circa 300 AD)
This wine bottle, dated in various sources to a period between 300 and 350AD, was discovered in 1867, in the town of Speyer. Two sarcophagi were found during the excavation of a Roman tomb. The pair in the tomb, presumably man and wine, were buried with sixteen glass vessels (six with the woman and ten with the man). All but one were empty. The single preserved vessel, on display at the Historical Museum of the Palatinate, in Speyer, Germany, contains what is considered the world’s oldest liquid wine. The 1.5-liter glass ‘wine bottle’ would have been rare in its own time, as Romans typically relied on sturdier ceramic vessels to hold and transport wine.
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