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Ancient winemaking operation unearthed in Armenian cave

A wine press, in front of an archaeological identification kit, and a vat, to the right of the press, were found in a cave near an Armenian village. The equipment dates back 6,000 years, scientists say.
A wine press, in front of an archaeological identification kit, and a vat, to the right of the press, were found in a cave near an Armenian village. The equipment dates back 6,000 years, scientists say. (Gregory Areshian)

Over the years, archaeologists have reported finding evidence, although never fully accepted proof, of wine drinking dating to 6000 BC. Researchers unearthed a collection of dozens of imported ceramic jars with a yellow residue consistent with wine in the tomb of Egyptian king Scorpion I, dated about 3150 BC, 1,000 years later than the Areni find. Grape seeds, grape skins and dried pulp also were found in the Egyptian tomb.

Also, Patrick McGovern, scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has reported finding chemical residue of wine in jars from 5,000 to 5,500 BC from a site in northwestern Iran. McGovern said the Armenian find is considerably broader, with evidence of not only wine drinking, but full-scale winemaking.

The cave expedition, which was sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences in Armenia, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the National Geographic Society, began in 2007, after archaeologists noticed some seemingly ancient grape seeds. But the cave complex had been identified as potentially important for archaeology in the late 1970s.

As Areshian explained it, geologists hired by defense officials of the former Soviet Union combed the countryside, and the Caucases in particular, to find deep caves where important material and documents could be stored in the event of a nuclear war with the United States. This cave in the northern Zagros Mountains, near Armenia's southern border with Iran, struck one of the geologists as unique. Areshian, then an archaeology graduate student in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, was summoned. He made a quick survey of the place and promised himself that he would someday return.

About 3500 BC, Areshian said, the area apparently experienced a major earthquake that cut off much access to the caves. In a short time, he said, the complex went from being an important gathering place to a popular shepherd destination.

Areshian's team used a new approach to determining whether wine residue was present - testing for the plant pigment malvidin, the heart-healthy flavonoid that gives red wine its color. Previously, researchers had largely tested for tartaric acid, which Areshian said is present in wine but in other plants as well.

McGovern, who based his wine-storage finding from Iran on the archaeology of the site and the presence of tartaric acid, disagreed that the malvidin was needed to prove the presence of wine. But he said its presence at the Armenian site added to the weight of evidence.

"You have in the cave good evidence of the kind of wine treading on a large scale that you later see around the area," he said. "I think this tells us the people there had been domesticating grapes and making wine for some time."


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