Byzantine wine press discovered ‘by accident’

Israeli archaeologists near the southern city of Beersheba have uncovered a rare early Byzantine wine press capable of producing over 8,000 bottles of wine.

The scale of the wine press at Ramat Negev is clear from this picture. It could hold around 6,500 litres of freshly pressed juice. Photo credit: Israel Antiquities Authority

Development work near the offices of the regional council buildings in the Ramat Negev settlement, south of Beersheba, led to workers uncovering part of an ancient structure.

As all archaeological sites are protected in Israel the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) was called.

The IAA team soon discovered that the structure was in fact a wine press of considerable size and dating to about the 4th century AD, so right at the beginning of the Byzantine era (which is generally held to start in around 330AD), and one of the earliest yet discovered in Israel.

The press seems to have been housed in a larger building, only one other press of this type has been found before in the Negev making it quite unique.

The pit into which the runoff juice was collected is two metres deep with a diameter of 2.5 metres meaning it could hold 6,500 litres of wine, the equivalent of more than 8,600 modern 0.75cl bottles.

The sheer scale of the production suggests two things. Firstly, that the press was probably connected to a local Roman army unit and supplied their wine ration or the winery was producing a lot of wine for export.

READ MORE: ‘Send beer!’ – life on the Romano-British frontier

Tali Gini, one of the IAA’s archaeologists based in the Negev explained that the Negev was a major agricultural region at this time and was an important viticultural area in particular with its wines exported throughout the Byzantine Empire where they were held in high regard. That the press is located along an ancient trade route (for incense and spices) only adds to the possibility that this was a large-scale commercial operation.

Another archaeologist, Yoram Chaimi, added: “In the entire southern Negev region, there is only one other wine press that is included inside an enclosed structure, which is in [the Nabataean city] of Avdat [another site along the old caravan route].”

It seems that winemaking in the Negev went into decline in around the 6th century AD, when Gini hypothesises the winepress fell into disuse after a plague swept the area. By the time of the arrival of Islam in the 7th century, the place had been abandoned.

The news comes very soon after the apparent discovery of an even older viticultural site further north in the Jezreel Valley, where an archaeologist has found evidence of a vineyard and winepress that is likely to be 1,000 years older than even the Byzantine site described above.

Another very large Byzantine wine and olive pressing area was discovered near Jerusalem in 2014.

One Response to “Byzantine wine press discovered ‘by accident’”

  1. Mischa Moselle says:

    The first interesting thing to happen in Beersheba in 1,600 years.

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