Monday, January 31, 2011

Ancient winemaking operation unearthed

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.

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