Scientists hope the discovery of 1,500-year-old grape seeds may help resurrect the Byzantine Empire’s world-renowned “Wine of the Negev”
“The Wine of the Negev” was historically one of the finest and most renowned wines of the Byzantine Empire, but its composition was thought to be lost to history. That is, until a recent discovery by the University of Haifa and the Israel Antiquities Authority at an excavation site in Halutza National Park in the Negev. Over a hundred charred 1,500-year-old grape seeds found in an ancient refuse dump are thought to hold the key to rediscovering this ancient treasure.
“The vines growing in the Negev today are European varieties, whereas the Negev vine was lost to the world. Our next job is to recreate the ancient wine, and perhaps in that way we will be able to reproduce its taste and understand what made the Negev wine so fine,” said Prof. Guy Bar-Oz of the University of Haifa, director of the excavation.
The wine, also known as “Gaza Wine” for the port it was sent from to all corners of the empire, is well known from historical sources and acknowledged to be expensive and of very high quality. In previous excavations in the Negev, archeologists found terraces where the vines were cultivated, wineries, and jugs in which the wine was stored and exported, but the grape seeds themselves remained elusive.
Arid desert conditions have led scientists to believe that the ancient vines must be genetically different than those used in the region today.
“European varieties require copious amounts of water. Today it is less of a problem thanks to technology, but it is unlikely that that was the case 1,500 years ago. It is more interesting to think of local grape varieties that were better suited to the Negev. Maybe the secret to the Negev wine’s international prestige lay in the method by which the vines were cultivated in the Negev’s arid conditions,” researchers said.
The excavation is part of a bioarchaeological study examining the causes of the rise and fall of the Byzantines in the Negev. Halutza, the site of the excavation, was once the most important Byzantine city in the Negev but collapsed in the mid-seventh century for reasons not yet known. Research at the site is directed by Prof. Guy Bar-Oz and Dr. Lior Weissbrod of the Zinman Institute at the University of Haifa, in collaboration with Dr. Tali Erickson-Gini from the Israeli Antiquities Authority.
Halutza’s buildings were lost to stone theft over time, but its refuse dumps were preserved and, according to Prof. Bar-Oz, now mark the boundaries of the ancient city. Pottery and coins discovered in the waste indicate that the seeds accumulated mainly during the sixth to seventh centuries AD, a time when the city was at the peak of its economic success. The archaeologists also found a high concentration of pottery fragments, including a significant number of Gaza jugs used to store the ancient Negev wine. A wealth of biological remains were also discovered, including bones of Red Sea fish and shellfish from the Mediterranean that were imported to the metropolis, indicating affluence of the city’s residents.
The next stage of the study is to collaborate with biologists to sequence the DNA of the seeds and determine whether they are a native varietal or an imported species, as are the French or Italian vines cultivated in the Negev today. Local winemakers and researchers alike are intrigued by the possibility of recreating the “Wine of the Negev” from ancient times.