BEIRUT: Lebanese know their country has a long winemaking history. Now a recently announced discovery suggests the antiquity of that heritage.
According to an article published in the academic journal Antiquity, a team of AUB and German archaeologists have excavated a 2,600-year-old Phoenician wine press at Tell el-Burak, a site a few kilometers south of Sidon.
“We found an installation that consists of a treading basin, where the grapes were trod, which was connected to a large vat where the juice of the grapes was collected,” Helene Sader, the dig’s lead archaeologist and AUB professor, told The Daily Star. “The organic analysis has shown that a lot of grape seeds were found in the residue and it looks very much like an ancient wine press, of very big proportions, which indicates it had an industrial function and wasn’t a simple, domestic feature.”
The find was first discovered in 2017, fully excavated in 2018, and has since been awaiting approval from the Department of Antiquities -- hence the belated announcement of the major discovery. The Tell el-Burak dig commenced in 2005 but work on the press stopped until 2017, due to the excavation of a Middle Bronze Age palace found nearby.
Funded by AUB, Germany’s University of Tubingen and the German Archeological Institute in Berlin, the team was delighted by the unexpected find.
“It was a great surprise for us and an exciting discovery because it’s the first time such an industrial wine press has been found in a Phoenician site,” Sader said. “The Phoenicians were known for the quality of their wine and it’s mentioned many times in classical texts.
“We hear about the Byblos wine praised for its fragrance and, in the Aramaic [Papyri] of Elephantine in Egypt, about Sidonian wine, so we knew Phoenician cities were producing wine but so far had absolutely no evidence,” she added. “Now we know. It was a major discovery relating to the economy of these ancient cities.”
In its article, Antiquity also noted the significance of the plaster used to craft the wine press, which is believed to be the earliest evidence of waterproof plaster (made by the addition of ceramic shards ), which was later adopted by the Romans in their buildings.
Wine played important social and religious roles in Phoenician times, being used in rituals and funerary rites.
“It was a very honorable and prestigious product that was offered to the gods as a libation,” Sader said. “We had a drinking ritual that is connected with funerary rituals in Tyre, shown in a cremation cemetery, where they found a chalice containing wine next to each urn.
“We also know it was a basic export for Phoenicians, because shipwrecks were found offshore of Ashkelon in Palestine,” she added, “which contained hundreds of amphorae, which had wine residue and had come from somewhere in South Lebanon [possibly] from Tell el-Burak, since it was a major shipment, heading to North Africa, maybe Egypt or Carthage.”
Excavation of the site will continue, with geomagnetic surveys showing there may be a second wine press on site.