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Massive early medieval wine factory discovered in Israel

A huge 1,500-year-old industrial estate has been uncovered in archeological excavations in the Israeli city of Yavne. During the Byzantine era this site could have produced as much as two million litres of wine every year.

Archaeological work has been taking place at Yavne, which was known in the later Middle Ages as Ibelin, over the past two years. The excavation, conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority, turned up five magnificent wine presses, warehouses for aging and marketing the wine, kilns for firing the clay amphorae in which the wine was stored, tens of thousands of fragments and intact earthen amphorae (jars), and well-planned access between the facilities.

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Each of the exposed winepresses covered an area of ​​about 225 square metres. Around the treading floor, where the grapes were crushed barefoot to extract the liquid, compartments were built for fermenting the wine, and next to them – two huge octagonal shaped vats for collecting the wine.

Dr. Elie Haddad, Liat Nadav-Ziv and Dr. Jon Seligman, the directors of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority noted, “we were surprised to discover a sophisticated factory here, which was used to produce wine in commercial quantities. Furthermore, decorative niches in the shape of a conch, which adorned the winepresses, indicate the great wealth of the factory owners. A calculation of the production capacity of these winepresses shows that approximately two million litres of wine were marketed every year, while we should remember that the whole process was conducted manually.”

Between the winepresses, four large warehouses were discovered, which formed the winery of the factory. The wine is aged in elongated amphorae, known as ‘Gaza jars’. The jars themselves, some of which were discovered complete, together with hundreds of thousands of their fragments, were made at the site in large kilns.

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Excavation by the Israel Antiquities Authority at Yavne – Aerial view. Photo: Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority

“Gaza and Ashkelon Wine” was considered a quality wine brand of the ancient world, whose reputation has spread far and wide, a bit like Jaffa oranges denote their origin and quality today from Israel”, the archaeologists explained. “Everyone knew that this was a product from the Holy Land, and everyone wanted more and more of this wine. The wine received its name as it was marketed through the ports of Gaza and Ashkelon. So far, other sites where wine was produced are known from the southern coastal plain, but now, we seem to have found the main production center of this prestigious wine. From here, commercial quantities were transported to the ports, and then throughout the Mediterranean basin”.

The excavation in Yavne also revealed even older winepresses from the Persian period, about 2300 years ago. “In the Mishna it is said that after the destruction of Jerusalem, the Jewish leadership migrated to Yavne, and that the sages of Yavne lived in a vineyard and studied Torah. The excavation shows a continuum of existence of the wine industry at the site over many centuries of years,” the archaeologists add.

Excavation directors, from right to left: Dr. Jon Seligman, Liat Nadav-Ziv and Dr. Elie Hadad. Photo: Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

The archaeological work done at Yavne involved hundreds of workers and dozens of permanent staff and experts. Zvi Gov-Ari, the Mayor of Yavne, added that “the impressive findings strengthen the recognition of the importance of the city of Yavne and its glorious past throughout history. We have decided that Tel Yavne will be preserved and will be upgraded to become a focal point for tourism and education in the future. The development plan includes a bridge over the site that will allow the finds to continue to exist. This type of activity, in cooperation with the Israel Antiquities Authority, has not been done in other projects in the country, and this is an opportunity to thank all parties for their cooperation.”

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One of the winepresses – Photo: Yaniv Berman the Israel Antiquities Authority

Top Image: A pair of wineries for producing wine from the Byzantine period. Photo: Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

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