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Material Culture Report: Wine

by Matt Nickel

Viticulture began in pre-Iron age Syria-Palestine as a way for farmers to diversify their crops and diet while minimizing risks of drought and famine. While beer and barley wines required less effort to make, they required vast use of the water and grain supplies to make. Wine, however, was self-sustainable. Wine was a long-term investment for the farmer requiring 4 or 5 years for the first fermentable harvest, when life spans were 30 to 45 years (21). But the value of the vineyard extended from agricultural strategy to familial legacy as the economic and symbolic nature of vines and wine is vital to Israelite daily life.

Historically, Canaanite wine was an important export to Egypt in the Bronze Age, and Iron Age farmers likely carried on the tradition despite the nature of winemaking to avoid leaving archeological evidence (15). Iron Age I left many ceramic storage containers and chalices, while Iron II provides much textual and archeological evidence of wine production.

Climatically, Israel is an excellent place for the cultivation of vines. Latitude and temperatures of Israel resemble that of Greece, Italy, France, and California (27). Since irrigation farming was not feasible, crops depended on rainfall. Vines lay dormant during the rain seasons, hence their roots not rotting, and thrive in the dry soil of the summer and harvest seasons, and proximity to the Mediterranean provides a temperate effect as sea winds blow inland, keeping the vines cool despite the heat of their growing season (28). And while grain crops prefer rich soils, the gravelly, loam, terra rossa soils of the mountain regions of Israel provide a place for vines to thrive (this is typical of Bordeaux)(31). Since the settlements of Iron II remained dense in the highlands despite movement into the plains, agriculture has a hill country characteristic (30). Diversity of crop was important because vines resist drought, so when one crop fails to drought, the vines remain stable (30).

While there is Biblical evidence for the Kings running some winemaking (1 Chr. 27:27 and 2 Chr. 26:10) and archeological of a large winepress in the town center of Ashkelon, too large for a small community (44), most evidence provides that winemaking was of the subsistence of the agricultural family. Archeological evidence show that courtyards were occasionally used in pillared houses of Iron II to store jars and containers or do agricultural work. At some sites, winepresses, grape pips, and storage containers have been uncovered (48-49). The Israelite winemaking process was a family affair, and women did not have the luxury of remaining by the hearth. The labor-intensive nature of harvesting, crushing, and venting required many bodies, including those of neighbors (59). The winemaking then, was typically made for the family (63).

For the family, the vineyard had particular value in patrilineal inheritance (63-68). Constructing a vineyard provided some protection for future generations in crop, but also assuring the social stability of a community and village where generations of the same family would remain in place (64), lineage in some cases remained tied to the vineyard as well (65). The inheritance was important because when the firstborn son began working at 13-14 years old, the son’s apprenticeship would ease the burden of the aging father (66).

In the winemaking process, several structures hold importance materially. After vineyards were planted, the family had four years to build a winepress, and an agricultural tower used for storing jars of fermenting wine (to maintain cooler temperatures for better fermentation) as well as a place for those working in the vineyard to rest from the heat (133). Less evidence exists for the agricultural tower as for the defense tower, but archeologist Zvi Ron discovered over 10,000 stone huts (“towers”) in the West Bank, 89% of which were in vineyards and orchards, his explanation was for guarding the vineyards as they were often planted apart from the house (133). No such towers were found in Judah. Evolution of winemaking as difficult to determine since vineyards and structures were renovated and reused and rarely abandoned (134).

The winepress was typically were built into the bedrock (so difficult to date) and were in a rectangular treading floor plus a vat that would collect what flowed from the floor (149) and communities would often share a press (151). Gibeon has some of the most sophisticated of finds, earning it the “ancient Bordeaux of Palestine” superlative (158 – 162). Winepresses, though, are not nearly as exciting as feasting and celebrations and the daily life of ancient wine connoisseurs…

Distinct social culture surrounded harvesting each vintage. The remains of the harvest were left for gleaners and sojourners (175). But wine culture prevailed as wine became a staple food ancient Mediterranean life. A typical winery was a “two-durnam” vineyard, which is a conservative vineyard size for an ancient Israelite farmer of about 250 vines. This size vineyard would yield an estimated 180 gallons or 690 liters of wine, which means per family, there would be just shy of 2 liters of wine a day for their consumption. In a Sabbath year, the wine would be limited to 390l. Either way, wine could easily have been enjoyed daily and still be a part of trade and festive purposes (211-212).

Walsh, Ellen Carrie. Viticulture in Ancient Israel. Eisenbrauns: Indiana, 2000.

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