Industrial Size Byzantine-Era Winery Unearthed in Israel
The largest and most advanced wine production facility in the Byzantine world was constructed in fourth or fifth century Palestine, specifically in the city of Yavne near Israel’s Mediterranean coast. This was discovered by archaeologists affiliated with the Israel Antiquities Authority, who uncovered the remains of the foundation of the sprawling Byzantine-era winery during excavations they performed this summer, in anticipation of an upcoming housing development project.
“We have been exposing an industrial area of ancient Yavne,” Dr. Jon Seligman, one of the study leaders, told The Jerusalem Post . “We found remains of other industries, for example, producing glass and metal.” Seligman also explained that they “found remains from other periods, such as a house from the ninth century and some other buildings from the interim period between the Byzantine and Islamic periods.”
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This large-scale factory was built to produce a popular regional wine known as Gaza or Ashkelon wine in honor of the two ports from where it was shipped in Byzantine times , which in ancient Palestine lasted from 313 to 636. Nowhere else in Byzantine-controlled territory has such a large wine-making factory been found, and its coveted product was undoubtedly distributed far and wide along long-distance trade routes by land and by sea.
Vats for wine storage at Byzantine winepress in Yavne. (Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority )
Industrial Winemaking Found at Byzantine-Era Winery
The city of Yavne , which was known as Jamnia in ancient times, was a major religious and commercial center during the Roman and later Eastern Roman-Byzantine periods. It is located in central Israel, 17 miles (28 kilometers) south of Tel Aviv and just 5 miles (7 km) from the Mediterranean Sea. Yavne was ideally situated for cross-sea shipping, and for overland shipping going north or south, and that made it a logical choice for the installation of the gigantic Byzantine-era winery.
“We were surprised to discover a sophisticated factory here, which was used to produce wine in commercial quantities,” Dr. Elie Haddad, Liat Nadav-Ziv, and Dr. Seligman said in a joint statement issued by the Israeli Antiquities Authority . “Decorative niches in the shape of a conch, which adorned the winepresses, indicate the great wealth of the factory owners.”
By the standards of any century or era, the Yavne winemaking facility was an industrial operation. The archaeologists found five heavy-duty winepresses, plus spacious treading floors for grape crushing and two huge octagonal vats where the grape juice could be collected. Several kilns were also unearthed, which would have been used to mass-manufacture fired clay vessels that could be used to store and eventually ship the wine. After being filled these vessels would have been kept in one of multiple large warehouses that were constructed on plant grounds, where the wine could be aged to perfection before being sent to market.
If operating at full capacity, the Yavne wine factory would have been able to produce more than a half-million gallons (2 million liters) of product in a single year. This wine would have been traded all over the region, and wine from Yavne would have been recognized as a unique brand with particularly desirable qualities.
“We should remember that the whole process was conducted by hand,” the archaeologists noted, after confirming incredible productive capacity of the Byzantine-era winery. From above the remains of the ancient wine plant resemble a honeycomb, which is appropriate since the facility would have been a beehive of activity when the winemakers of Yavne were hard at work.
Aerial view of the Byzantine winepress uncovered in Yavne (Asaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority )
The Importance of Yavne in Ancient Palestine
It was not surprising to find such a large and obviously prestigious facility in the city of Yavne. This important urban center was a hub of activity during the first millennium AD, and even before. Yavne’s connection to winemaking and the wine trade was mentioned in the Mishnah, a first or second century sacred text that featured stories from the ancient Jewish oral tradition. In addition to the wine factory, the archaeologists also discovered a separate single winepress, which they’ve dated back to the third century BC, when the area was held by the Persians.
More than anything, Yavne was known as an important center for religious and spiritual affairs, during Byzantine times and well before. “Yavne was important enough to be put in a map from the period with Jerusalem, featuring three large churches,” Dr. Seligman explained. “First and foremost, it was a Christian town. But we also know that there were populations of Jews and Samaritans living there during the same time period. It was located in what at the time was on a major road, called the sea highway, which went from north to south, and on its junction with the Sorek River.”
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After the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in the year 70 AD, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, the respected and highly influential sage who helped compile the Mishnah, re-established the Great and Lesser Sanhedrin and moved them to Yavne. The Sanhedrin were assemblies of elders who legislated all aspects of Jewish religious and political life, like a first century version of the House and Senate in the United States or the Houses of Commons and Lords in the United Kingdom.
In the future, the archaeologists plan to expand their excavations to an area where Yavne’s ancient city center was likely located. Here, they are hoping to find the remains of the three churches that were so important in Byzantine-period Palestine. Nevertheless, for now they are more than satisfied with their discovery of the astonishingly large wine factory.
Jar with stopper found at Byzantine-era winery in Yavne. (Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority )
Excavations and Discoveries at the Byzantine-Era Winery in Yavne
They were excited to realize it was used to manufacture Gaza or Ashkelon wine, which was known throughout the Middle East and the greater Mediterranean region for its superb flavor and high quality overall. “It was a light, white wine,” Dr. Seligman said. “We have found many winepresses in Israel, but what is unique here is that we are talking about a cluster of five huge ones, especially beautiful in their architecture.”
In addition to the winepresses and other structural features of the Byzantine-era winery, the archaeologists also found the fragmented and sometimes still-whole remains of thousands of ceramic jars, which were used to store, age and carry the wine to distant locations. “They have a specific and very recognizable shape,” Seligman said. “The same jars were found in many places around the region, including Egypt, and we know that they were used for exporting the wine.”
The discovery of a centralized distribution point for highly-prized wine in Yavne will allow archaeologists to trace various ancient trade routes back to this important source. As more wine jars are unearthed around the wider region in the years to come, it will be possible to learn more about how trade functioned in the Middle East during the bustling Byzantine period.
Top image: Excavation of Byzantine-era winery by the Israel Antiquities Authority at Yavne, Israel. Source: Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority
By Nathan Falde