Scientists Identify Ancient Grapes from Byzantine Days

Archeologists digging in the Negev desert in southern Israel have uncovered evidence of a booming wine industry dating back more than 1,500 years. They have also found and genetically analyzed two ancient winegrape varieties that thrived in the hot, dry climate of the region. Some members of Israel’s young wine industry hope to use the grapes to produce wines with a link to the region’s long history.

Napa for the Byzantine Empire?

Prof. Guy Bar-Oz is a bio-archaeologist at the School of Archaeology and Maritime Cultures at the University of Haifa who began digging in the region in 2015 and at the Avdat archaeological site in 2018. His goal was to find out why the people who lived there 1,500 years ago abandoned the region. His early excavations focused on middens, ancient trash piles. He and his colleagues were surprised by how many grape pips they dug up.

The ancient city of Avdah (or Abdah) was founded in the 1st century BCE by the Nabataeans, a people who ruled parts of modern-day Israel, Jordan and Syria. They are best known for building the ancient city of Petra, their capital, and were neighbors of ancient Judea. Avdah was an important town between Petra and Gaza, part of a trade route for spices. Later, the Nabataeans’ land was absorbed into the Roman and then Byzantine empires. The region has strong links to our collective wine past.

By 600 CE, the population living in Avdat were Greek speakers and Christian. They lived on the eastern edge of the vast Byzantine empire, which controlled much of the land touching the Mediterranean sea. The hinterlands of Gaza were used for agriculture, and these vintners had access to the trade routes of the empire and the kingdoms in what is today Western Europe. Adding to their good fortune, Jerusalem was a busy pilgrimage destination, bringing visitors from all over. In other words, it was a good market for wine.

The evidence for commercial wine production in the area is persuasive. Archeologists have uncovered large wine presses, the remains of pressed grapes, dovecotes positioned to provide guano to fertilize the vines, the traces of irrigation systems—everything necessary to prosper at viticulture in a marginal environment.

“They didn’t have enough water so they built water systems to collect water during the winter,” said Dr. Meirav Meiri, curator of Bioarcheology and Head of the Animal and Plant Ancient DNA Laboratory at the Steinhardt Museum in Tel Aviv, who worked on the research. “From these sites we can see that the people who lived there knew how to take advantage of what they had to have a successful life.”

Ancient grapes

The researchers decided they needed to learn more about the grape remains they found. “We wanted to know what varieties they grew,” said Meiri. “Did they bring them from somewhere else in the Byzantine empire or Europe, or were they local varieties?”

Over the last few decades the Negev has become trendy place to plant a vineyard, but the vines are international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon. The ancient varieties have been lost.

The archeological team gathered grape pips from three sites and used target-enriched genomic-wide sequencing and radiocarbon dating to determine the grapes’ lineage. They also sequenced modern indigenous cultivars as well as wild and feral grapes gathered across Israel.

They found that the Byzantine farmers grew numerous, genetically diverse grapes in field blends. “Maybe this diversity [in the vineyards] was a strategy for food security,” said Bar-Oz. Different varieties might have been more resistant to disease or drought, ripen earlier or later. “And if they all ripen on the same day, you’ll have problems bringing them to the wine press.”

Two pips were of particular interest. A33 is a direct relative, likely a parent-offspring relationship, of the modern Lebanese grape Asswad Karech, also known as Syriki in Greece. “It’s amazing,” said Meiri. “It has many names, but it’s the same…

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Scientists Identify Ancient Grapes from Byzantine Days  
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