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Ancient wine cellar discovered in northern Israel

A team of archeologists has discovered what may be the world’s oldest wine cellar, stocked with 40 jars, at a ruined palace in northern Israel.

The once-in-a-lifetime find turned the summer excavation season at a site that dates to 1700 BC into a frantic race against time. Scientists pulled double shifts to excavate, preserve, and analyze the jars, which would have once held 50 liters of wine, to get as much information as they could while the site was intact and fairly fresh. A Brandeis University professor gathered residues from shards of the jars in the field and brought those samples back in his luggage to be analyzed without delay, and he hopes to use the findings to make modern versions of the ancient wine.

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“We knew when we hit the first jar — we were hoping beyond hope this was something big for us, because the jar was pretty much intact and that pretty much never happens,” said Andrew Koh, assistant professor of classical studies at Brandeis. “Just the ravages of time — they don’t survive.”

The group, including researchers from George Washington University and the University of Haifa, presented their findings Friday at a meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research in Baltimore.

The first hint that the room — located at a site called Tel Kabri — was unusual came from a scan with a remote sensing technology called LIDAR.

Usually, Koh said, archeologists try to reconstruct what rooms would have been used for by triangulating pretty sparse data.

“There’s usually a scattering of shards, and for most people it’s not all that interesting. . . . We have to say, ‘This is a kitchen, perhaps,’ ” Koh said. In this case, however, the LIDAR scan suggested the room was packed with artifacts. He thinks it will ultimately be possible to understand not only that the room was a wine cellar, but to discern from the pattern and grouping of jars what kind of wine was in each one and how they were organized.

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At the site this summer, Koh took shards from near the base of the jars — where the most residues were likely to be found — and placed those in foil. He carried the shards to a field site where he could boil them in a solvent and gather the residue. He brought the solutions that held the residue from 40 jars to his laboratory in Waltham and began looking for molecular remnants that could provide clues about what the jars once contained.

The instruments can identify what was in the residue, and Koh detected tartaric and syringic acids, which are found in wine, as well as molecules that suggest ingredients such as honey, mint, resins, and cinnamon bark were used.

Koh thinks that as he pieces together the chemical evidence with the archeological reconstruction of where jars were located in the room, it will be possible to find how the cellar was organized — where white vs. red wines were stored.

There is still plenty to study in the 3,000-year-old wine cellar, but archeologists are also hopeful for more. There are two other rooms they have yet to excavate.


Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.