Archaeologists said Tuesday they had found the world's oldest known winery in a cave in Armenia, indicating that humans were distilling grapes during the Copper Age, more than 6,000 years ago.
"This is, so far, the oldest relatively complete wine production facility, with its press, fermentation vats and storage jars in situ," said Hans Barnard, the lead author of an article about the study published Tuesday in the peer-reviewed Journal of Archaeological Science.
The artifacts were discovered by Armenian, US and Irish archaeologists inside a cave complex in southern Armenia, near the border with Iran and close to a village that still makes its own wine, researchers said.
They were found on the same site where archaeologists had in June 2010 discovered a perfectly preserved leather moccasin dating back 5,500 years, considered to be the world's oldest shoe.
Radiocarbon analysis by researchers at University of California Irvine and Oxford University has dated the installation to between 4100 BC and 4000 BC, or the Late Chalcolithic Period, also known as the Copper Age.
The findings included a rudimentary wine press and a clay vat surrounded by grape seeds, withered grape vines, and remains of pressed grapes, as well as potsherds and even a cup and drinking bowl.
"For the first time, we have a complete archaeological picture of wine production dating back 6,100 years," said Gregory Areshian, co-director of the excavation and assistant director of the University of California Los Angeles's Cotsen Institute of Archaeology.
Analysis of the residue found on the vat by Areshian, Barnard and other UCLA archaeologists confirmed the presence of a plant pigment only found in grapes and pomegranates.
"Because no remnants of pomegranates were found in the excavated area, we're confident that the vessels held something made with grape juice," Areshian said.
He added that the vat -- a shallow, meter (three-foot) square basin surrounded by a thick rim -- resembles wine presses in use as recently as the 19th century throughout the Mediterranean and the Caucasus.
Until now, the earliest known wine press dated back to just 1650 BC, and was excavated in what is now the Israeli-occupied West Bank in 1963, the archaeologists said.
The identity of the ancient Armenian wine-makers remains a mystery, but the scientists said they believed the press was used by predecessors of the Kura-Axes people, an early Transcaucasian group.
They added that the wine was likely used for ceremonial purposes since the press and wine jugs were found near grave sites, although wine for day-to-day consumption may have been made in other locations yet to be unearthed.
"This wine wasn't used to unwind at the end of the day," Areshian said.
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