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"The Origins and Ancient History of Wine"

detail from a drawing of hieroglyphics found on a "wine jar"

Detail from a drawing of hieroglyphics found on a jar stopper from a royal tomb at
Abydos, Egypt. The arrow points to the early hieroglyphic sign for "grapevine/vineyard."

C o n t e n t s :

Intro- living out our past through wine

Neolithic Period - "chateau hajji firuz"

Egypt - wine for the afterlife

- under the grape arbors...

One of a kind laboratory
- ancient evidence; modern technology

Map - wine's whereabouts: then and now

The grapevine & tree resins - nature's ingredients


Wine for the Afterlife

The wild grape never grew in ancient Egypt.
Did you know...?
Many of the Museum's millon+ artifacts in its collections relate to fermented beverages or cuisine. (Think of Greek classical pottery and Dionysus cavorting with his satyrs and maenads!)
Yet a thriving royal winemaking industry had been established in the Nile Delta—most likely due to Early Bronze Age trade between Egypt and Palestine, encompassing modern Israel,the West Bank and Gaza, and Jordan—by at least Dynasty 3 (ca. 2700 B.C.), the beginning of the Old Kingdom period. Winemaking scenes appear on tomb walls, and the accompanying offering lists include wine that was definitely produced at vineyards in the Delta. By the end of the Old Kingdom, five wines—all probably made in the Delta—constitute a canonical set of provisions, or fixed "menu," for the afterlife.
Early Dynastic "wine jar" and stopper
Early Dynastic "wine jar" and stopper from a royal tomb at
Abydos, Egypt.

Close up of the stopper
Close up of the stopper. It bears the name of Den, a Dynasty 1 pharaoh.

The evidence for winemaking in the Delta during the preceding Early Dynastic Period (Dynasties 1 and 2) is more inferential. Rather than recording a large number of wine jars in an offering list, actual jars in large quantities were buried in the tombs of the pharoahs at Abydos and those of their families at Saqqara, the main religious centers. The jars are stoppered with a round pottery lid and a conical clay lump that was pressed over the lid and tightly around the rim. The clay stopper was generally impressed with multiple cylinder seal impressions giving the name of the pharoah.
...such seals have been interpreted as a primitive kind of wine label...

While chemical tests have yet to verify that the Dynasty 1 and 2 jars contained wine, less common seal impressions on the jar stoppers do include hieroglyphic signs for "grapevine/vineyard" (see drawing at top of page) and possible geographic locations (e.g., Memphis, the northern capital, near Saqqara), in addition to the king's name. Such seals have been interpreted as a primitive kind of wine label, possibly giving the location of the winery and its owner. The impressions with only the king's name might then be an abbreviated form of registration for jars that generally contained wine. Viniculture in Egypt must have taken some time to develop, and the Early Dynastic "wine jars" may well represent the first "fruits" of the nascent industry.

Is it possible to know when the first grapevines were transplanted to the Nile Delta?
Drawing of a cylinder seal impression on a jar stopper
Drawing of a cylinder seal impression on a jar stopper bearing the name of Khasekhemwy, a Dynasty 2 pharoah. It shows a grapevine trained to run along a trellis or arbor.
The answer is vital for understanding the prehistory of an industry that eventually spread over the entire Delta, to the large western oases, and even to towns on the upper Nile where the climate would seem to preclude viniculture. The domesticated grapevine could only have come from some region of the Levant that was already exploiting it, and many specialists—farmers, horticulturists, traders, and above all, vintners—would've been involved in the establishment and success of the developing industry.

The grapevine hieroglyphic itself (pictured above), showing a grapevine trained to run along a trellis or arbor, indicates that the Early Dynastic viniculture was quite sophisticated.


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