Ancient Wine


Wine, the premier fermented beverage of Mediterranean and Near Eastern civilizations, was likely discovered and enjoyed early in human prehistory.  Although the organic evidence of these unique beverages, with their special dietary benefits and psychotropic effects, has largely disappeared, highly sensitive techniques now make it possible to identify chemical compounds that are specific to wine.  Our earliest finding is that the Neolithic villagers of the northern Zagros mountains of Iran were making wine and storing wine in some of the earliest pottery jars from the Middle East, ca. 5400 B.C.  Terebinth tree resin was added to the wine, much like modern-day retsina, probably as a preservative and to cover up any off-tastes or odors.  The pharmacopeiae of later literate societies are dominated by this resinated wine, whose origins can now be traced back to the first period of permanent human habitation.


Before a royal winemaking industry was established in the Nile Delta, ca. 3000 B.C., the first pharaohs imported wine from the Levant, and soon developed a taste for it.  During Dynasty 0, around 3150 B.C., one of the first kings of Egypt, Scorpion I, was buried in a magnificent “funerary house” in the desert at Abydos on the middle Nile River.  The German Institute of Archaeology in Cairo excavated Scorpion’s tomb in all its splendor, with ivory scepter and supplies of food and drink to carry with him into the afterlife.  What was most astounding was that 700 jars containing some 4500 liters of resinated wine, according to our chemical analyses, were deposited in these three rooms, which was then covered over by a roof and mound of earth.

Besides being resinated wine with terebinth tree resin to which fresh fruit (grapes and figs) had been added, the Scorpion wine had also been laced with a variety of herbs–mint, coriander and sage–according to our re-analysis of the jar residues, using state-of-the-art techniques in collaboration with the U.S. Government Tax and Trade Commission Laboratory.

We have also demonstrated that the liquid in the jars had indeed been fermented, according DNA analysis in collaboration with the University of Florence.  The residues revealed fragments of wine yeast DNA, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the earliest ever recovered and the likely precursor of the bread and beer yeasts.

Once the beverage had established an economic foothold, usually being incorporated into religious ritual and social custom as well, the next logical step was to transplant the grapevine itself, and begin producing wine locally to assure a more steady supply, at a lower cost and tailored to local tastes.  The Nile Delta with its extensive tracts of irrigated land, sunny days and short rainy season was ideal, and became the focus of a royal wine industry in the first two dynasties.

Soon, burials were not considered to be adequately prepared for the afterlife unless the five canonical wines from different estates in the Delta were deposited or illustrated in them.  The 26 wine amphoras of the boy-king Tutankhamun that were buried with him in his famous tomb around 1330 B.C during the heyday of the New Kingdom were produced in the wineries in the Nile Delta.