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Finely aged: Israeli archeologists uncover world’s largest Byzantine wine factory in Yavne

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Rare, older winepresses from the Persian period dating back 2,300 years were also discovered at the site

By ILANIT CHERNICK

In a magnificent discovery, archeologists in Israel have unveiled the world’s largest Byzantine-period wine factory, dating back 1,500 years.

According to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), about 2 million liters of the famous ‘Gaza and Ashkelon wine’ were produced at the site every year.

Over the past two years, archaeologists in the central Israeli city of Yavne have been excavating the site, which is believed to have been from the Byzantine period. 

“The wine factory was a world wine powerhouse about 1,500 years ago: a huge and well-designed industrial area [during this period]… with a very impressive wine production plant,” the IAA explained. 

Speaking about this incredible find, Dr. Eli Hadad, Liat Nadav-Ziv and Dr. Yohanan (John) Seligman, who are the IAA directors of the excavation, explained that they “were surprised to discover such a sophisticated factory” at the site.

An aerial view of the archeological site in Yavne, Israel. (Photo Credit: Asaf Peretz/IAA)

“[It]  was used to produce wine in commercial quantities,” the team said, pointing out that the “semicircles in the shape of an oyster that adorned the winepresses indicate the great wealth of the factory owners.”
They said that an estimated calculation of the production capacity of the winepresses shows that about 2 million liters of wine were marketed here every year, adding that “this is a huge amount even relative to our day – and you have to remember that the whole process is then done manually.”

Describing the site further, the archeologists emphasized that the factory also had five magnificent wine cellars, warehouses for aging and marketing the wine, along with kilns for burning the clay jars in which the liquids were stored, tens of thousands of fragments of earthen jars, and “even some jars that were found intact.”
Additionally, the winery also has neat access routes between the facilities.

“Drinking wine was very common in ancient times, for children and adults alike,” the archaeologists explained. “Since the water was not always sterile and tasty, wine was also used as a kind of ‘concentrate’ to improve the taste, or as a substitute for drinking water.” 

Each of the winepresses that were found measure ​​about 225 square meters, with the team said emphasizing that “around the treading floor, where [a worker] stepped on the grapes barefoot to extract the liquid, cells were built for fermenting the wine,” and next to them were two cisterns for collecting the wine shaped like octagons.

The IAA also said that four large warehouses were discovered, which formed the winery of the factory. 

Explaining how the wine was made, the archeologists said that the “wine is aged in elongated jars, known as ‘Gaza jars’.”
“These jars, some of which were discovered in their entirety, with tens of thousands more of their fragments found at the excavation, were made at the site in large kilns,” they said. “‘Gaza and Ashkelon wine’ is considered the quality wine brand of the ancient world, a bit like ‘Jaffa oranges’ from Israel, whose name came from afar.”
Even more fascinating is that the vessels and wine produced at the Yavne factory “gained international fame,” reaching as far as Europe and Africa. 

“Everyone knew that this was a product of the Land of Israel, and everyone wanted more and more of it because it was so good,” the archeology team said. 

The five huge wine presses discovered at the site. Two million liters of wine were produced here every year.
(Photo Credit: Yaniv Berman/IAA)

Pointing out how the ‘Gaza and Ashkelon wine’ got its name, the archeologists said that “the wine – which was mostly white wine, got its name because it was marketed through the ports of Gaza and Ashkelon.” 

“We’ve found other sites where the wine is made on the South Coast lowlands, but now, it seems we have found the main production center of this prestigious wine,” they said. “From here – commercial quantities went to the two ports, and from there – [they were exported] throughout the Mediterranean basin or to the ancient world.”

More excitingly, the IAA noted also that excavations at the Yavneh site “revealed rare and even older winepresses from the Persian period – dating back 2,300 years.” 

“In the Mishnah, it’s said that after the destruction of Jerusalem, the Jewish leadership migrated to Yavne and that the sages of Yavne lived in the vineyard and studied Torah,” the archeologists said. “Finding vineyards on the site from the Persian period and from the Byzantine period, alongside [what’s stated in] Talmudic text, may, perhaps, hint at a continuum in the existence of a wine industry on the site over many centuries.” 

Commenting on the find, IAA director Eli Escozido commended the team of archaeologists, who he said, “are doing sacred work by exposing unknown chapters in the history of the country while working hard and in the cold.”

Concluding, Yavne’s mayor, Zvi Gov-Ari, said that “this impressive discovery strengthens the recognition of the importance of the city of Yavne and its glorious past throughout all periods.” 

**Featured Image: Archeologists and IAA site directors Dr. Yochanan (John) Seligman, Liat Nadav-Ziv and Dr. Eli Haddad stand with some of the fascinating finds at the site. (Photo Credit: Yaniv Berman/IAA)

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