Ancient winemaking operation unearthed in Armenian cave

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2011; 12:19 AM

From bacchanalian rites to somber ceremonies and family dinners, wine has long been connected with human sociability. But just how long?

One well-known biblical story says that after Noah's Ark came to rest on what is thought to be Mount Ararat, Noah planted a vineyard, harvested grapes, fermented them and got drunk.

Now actual proof of early vintners comes from a cave near a remote Armenian village, which, perhaps not coincidentally, is within 60 miles of Mount Ararat. Scientists have unearthed a surprisingly advanced winemaking operation, surrounded by storage jars, and say it dates back 6,000 years, making it the earliest known site in the world for wine-making with grapes, by far.

Its presence, along with the recent discovery of the world's oldest leather moccasin in the same cave outside the small town of Areni, is requiring professionals in the field to broaden and, to some extent reexamine, exactly what constituted early civilization and where it occurred.

"This is the oldest confirmed example of winemaking by a thousand years," said Gregory Areshian, an archaeologist and co-director of the dig. "People were making wine here well before there were pharaohs in Egypt."

The winemaking in the cave appears to be associated with burial rituals because numerous graves are close by, he said. "This was almost surely not wine used at the end of the day to unwind."

Areshian said that the discovery of winemaking in the Areni cave complex, outlined in the peer-reviewed Journal of Archaeological Science and released Tuesday, indicates that the people there were settled and relatively sophisticated 6,000 years ago. Although researchers traditionally look to Egypt and Mesopotamia to understand ancient civilization, Areshian said that "there were many, many specialized and unique centers of civilization in the ancient world, and we can only understand it as a mosaic of these peoples."

Establishing vineyards with domesticated and high-yielding Vitis vinifera, the hybrid grape still used to make wine today, is a significant advance, and is considered more complex than making beer from the grains that dominated in the fertile lowlands. The Areni area also had orchards at the time of the early winemaking because the cave has remains of plums and apricots.

The shape and placement of the wine press indicates locals stamped the grapes with their feet, as people throughout the Mediterranean and Near East did as late as the 19th century, and collected the wine in fermentation jars placed below to capture the liquid.

Areshian, assistant director of the UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, and his team will return to Areni this summer to look for what they think is a far more widespread practice of ancient winemaking in the area. The area is known for its winegrowing and has summer wine festivals.

The discovery, and painstaking process of determining that it was wine being made and stored, adds to the importance of the Areni cave, which in 2009 yielded the oldest known leather shoe and a red basket buried alongside an infant. The mocassin, made of leather and straw, was carbon-dated to be about 5,500 years old.

It is highly unusual for organic material to remain intact so long, but the dry conditions of the cave, its constant temperature and then a covering layer of sheep dung deposited long ago have created a treasure trove of objects from the period called the Copper Age. The age of the finds was set through carbon dating and uncovering archaeological layers.

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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