Massive Ancient Wine Factory Unearthed in Yavneh

An aerial view of the excavation by the Israel Antiquities Authority at Yavneh. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Yavneh was a world wine powerhouse about 1,500 years ago, and a huge and well-designed industrial estate from the Byzantine period, with a very impressive wine production complex – the largest known in the world from this period – has been excavated in the city over the past two years. This huge excavation has been conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority as part of the Israel Land Authority’s initiative to expand the city. The plant includes five magnificent wine presses, warehouses for aging and marketing the wine, kilns for firing the clay amphorae in which the wine was stored, tens of thousands of fragments and intact earthen amphorae (jars), well-planned access between the facilities, and more.

Drinking wine was very common in ancient times, for children and adults alike. Since the water was not always sterile or even tasty, wine was also used as a kind of “concentrate” to improve the taste, or as a substitute for drinking water. Each of the exposed winepresses covered an area of about 225 square meters. Around the treading floor, where the grapes were crushed barefoot to extract the liquid, compartments were built for fermenting the wine, and next to them, two huge octagonal-shaped vats for collecting the wine.

Dr. Elie Haddad, Liat Nadav-Ziv and Dr. Jon Seligman, the directors of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, noted, “We were surprised to discover a sophisticated factory here, which was used to produce wine in commercial quantities. Furthermore, decorative niches in the shape of a conch, which adorned the winepresses, indicate the great wealth of the factory owners. A calculation of the production capacity of these winepresses shows that approximately two million liters of wine were marketed every year, while we should remember that the whole process was conducted manually.”

Between the winepresses, four large warehouses were discovered, which formed the winery of the factory. The wine is aged in elongated amphorae, known as “Gaza jars.” The jars themselves, some of which were discovered complete, together with hundreds of thousands of their fragments, were made at the site in large kilns.

The largest known wine industry area in the world dated to the Byzantine period. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)

“Gaza and Ashkelon wine was considered a quality wine brand of the ancient world, whose reputation has spread far and wide, a bit like Jaffa oranges denote their origin and quality today from Israel,” the archaeologists explained. “Everyone knew that this was a product from the Holy Land, and everyone wanted more and more of this wine. The wine received its name as it was marketed through the ports of Gaza and Ashkelon. So far, other sites where wine was produced are known from the southern coastal plain, but now, we seem to have found the main production center of this prestigious wine. From here, commercial quantities were transported to the ports, and then throughout the Mediterranean basin.”

It is interesting to know that the excavation in Yavneh revealed rare and even older winepresses from the Persian period, about 2300 years ago. “In the Mishnah it is said that after the destruction of Yerushalayim, the Jewish leadership migrated to Yavneh, and that the Chachamim of Yavneh lived in a vineyard and studied Torah. The excavation shows a continuum of existence of the wine industry at the site over many centuries of years,” the archaeologists said.

According to the director of the Israel Land Authority, Yaakov Quint, “The treasures that are part of the land have been exposed thanks to the Israel Lands Authority’s extensive investment in financing the Yavneh archeological excavations.”

The Israel Lands Authority’s plan, together with the municipality of Yavneh, includes 12,500 housing units and 450,000 square meters of commercial and employment space. The plan includes doubling the railway track and new construction over the train station. As part of the preliminary works for the development of the plan, the Israel Land Authority is investing approximately NIS 200 million in the works of the Israel Antiquities Authority, which will enable the archaeological finds to be exposed, investigated and preserved for future generations.

Mayor of Yavneh Zvi Gov-Ari said: “The impressive findings strengthen the recognition of the importance of the city of Yavneh and its glorious past throughout history. We have decided that Tel Yavneh will be preserved and will be upgraded to become a focal point for tourism and education in the future. The development plan includes a bridge over the site that will allow the finds to continue to exist. This type of activity, in cooperation with the Israel Antiquities Authority, has not been done in other projects in the country, and this is an opportunity to thank all parties for their cooperation.”

The Israel Antiquities Authority, the Israel Land Authority and the Yavneh municipality invite the public to tour the huge wine factory, before it is covered in order to protect it from the impending rains. Later, the wineries will be preserved and made accessible to the public as part of an archeological park to be established on the site.

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