Cave Drops Hints to Earliest Glass of Red
Published: January 11, 2011

Scientists have reported finding the oldest known winemaking
operation, about 6,100 years old, complete with a vat for fermenting,
a press, storage jars, a clay bowl and a drinking cup made from an
animal horn. Grape seeds, dried pressed grapes, stems, shriveled
grapevines and residue were also found, and chemical analyses indicate
red wine was produced there.
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The discovery, published online Tuesday in The Journal of
Archaeological Science, occurred in a cave in Armenia where the team
of American, Armenian and Irish archaeologists recently found the
oldest known leather shoe. The shoe, a laced cowhide moccasin possibly
worn by a woman with a size-7 foot, is about 5,500 years old.

These discoveries and other artifacts found in the cave provide a
window into the Copper Age, or Late Chalcolithic period, when humans
are believed to have invented the wheel and domesticated horses, among
other innovations.

Relatively few objects have been found, but the cave, designated
Areni-1 and discovered in 1997, is proving a perfect time capsule
because prehistoric artifacts have been preserved under layers of
sheep dung and a white crust on the cave’s karst limestone walls.

“We keep finding more interesting things,” said Gregory Areshian,
assistant director of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at the
University of California, Los Angeles, and the co-director of the
excavation, which is financed by the National Geographic Society and
other institutions. “Because of the conditions of the cave, things are
wonderfully preserved.”

Experts called the find a watershed.

“I see it as the earliest winemaking facility that’s ever been found,”
said Patrick E. McGovern, an archaeological chemist at the University
of Pennsylvania Museum, which is not involved in the project. “It
shows a fairly large-scale operation, and it fits very well with the
evidence that we already have about the tradition of making wine.”

Some of that evidence was identified by Dr. McGovern and colleagues,
who determined that residue in jars found at a northwestern Iran site
called Hajji Firuz suggested that wine was being made as early as
7,400 years ago.

But “that’s just a number of wine jars that we identified,” said Dr.
McGovern, author of “Uncorking the Past.”

“Just how elaborate this one is suggests that there was earlier
production” of a more sophisticated nature.

Stefan K. Estreicher, a professor at Texas Tech University and author
of “Wine: From Neolithic Times to the 21st Century,” said the Armenian
discovery shows “how important it was to them” to make wine because
“they spent a lot of time and effort to build a facility to use only
once a year” when grapes were harvested.

The wine was probably used for ritual purposes, as burial sites were
seen nearby in the cave. Dr. Areshian said at least eight bodies had
been found so far, including a child, a woman, bones of elderly men
and, in ceramic vessels, skulls of three adolescents (one still
containing brain tissue).

Wine may have been drunk to honor or appease the dead, and was “maybe
also sprinkled on these burials,” he said.

The cave, with several chambers, appeared to be used for rituals by
high-status people, although some people, possibly caretakers, lived
up front, where the shoe was found. Researchers have also found two
“dark holes, essentially jars filled with dried fruit, including dried
grapes, prunes, walnuts and probably the oldest evidence of
cultivating almonds,” Dr. Areshian said.

And there is evidence of a 6,000-year-old “metallurgical operation,”
including smelted copper and a mold to cast copper ingots, he said.

Mitchell S. Rothman, an anthropologist and Chalcolithic expert at
Widener University not involved in the expedition, said these
discoveries show “the industry and technology developing,” and “the
very inklings of some kind of social differentiation.”

It is “the sort of thing where ritual becomes not only part of the
desire to appreciate the gods, but a way in which the people involved
in that become somehow special,” added Dr. Rothman, who has visited
the cave.

The winemaking discovery began when graduate students found grape
seeds in the cave’s central chamber in 2007, and culminated last fall.
A shallow, thick-rimmed, 3-by-3 1/2-foot clay basin appears to be a
wine press where people stomped grapes with their feet. The basin is
positioned so juice would tip into a two-foot-deep vat.

Scientists verified the age and function with radiocarbon dating,
botanical analysis to confirm the grapes were cultivated, and analysis
of residue for malvidin, which gives red wine its color.

Dr. Areshian said scientists are undertaking “a very extensive DNA
analysis of the grape seeds” from the cave and “our botanists want to
plant some of the seeds.”
A version of this article appeared in print on January 11, 2011, on
page D3 of the New York edition.

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