Winemaking in Ancient Phoenicia

Many Châteaux’s and monasteries across modern Lebanon are renowned for their sprawling vineyards and tasty wines, but the tradition of winemaking in this land goes a long way back and a recent archaeological project has now uncovered the earliest evidence for it.

Map 1: Location of Tell el-Burak.

Tell el-Burak is located in south Lebanon, between Sidon and Tyre (Map 1). The American University of Beirut has been conducting research excavations there since 20011. Recent excavation seasons, and the study discussed below, were conducted in collaboration with the University of Tübingen2.

The site of Tell el-Burak consists of an Iron Age settlement that dated to the period between the end of the 8th c. BC to the mid-4th c. BC. This Phoenician settlement was most likely founded by the larger and, at the time, more prominent city of Sidon. Offshoot settlements were often established by bigger cities to serve broader strategic and economic purposes.

It is hypothesized that Tell el-Burak operated a primarily agricultural role towards the latter end. This is supported by the presence of an archaeobotanical assemblage (the predominant element in which was the grape vine seed), a large number of transport amphorae that would have been used for storage and trade, and plastered press installations for wine production. This evidence fits well with what we already know of the Phoenicians and their impressive maritime trading activities. In fact, some scholars estimate that it was the Phoenicians who introduced the grapevine to North-West Africa and Europe, and who played an important role in spreading the tradition of wine drinking (you’re welcome, people!).

However, despite their association with wine and winemaking in areas beyond the Levant, little evidence for wine production has been found in the Phoenicians’ native land itself. This is why the wine press at Tell el-Burak is a significant discovery. What’s more, is that on top of being the first wine press discovered in Phoenicia, it is also one of the best preserved wine presses in the ancient Mediterranean.

The images below show the wine press as uncovered during the excavation project, and an artistic reconstruction of the installation. The wine press consisted of three main parts:

  1. The treading floor or basin (aka, the fun part): this is where people trod on the grapes in order to extract the juice.
  2. The connecting channel: this allowed the must (the grape juice) to flow from the treading basin to the vat.
  3. The sunken vat: another basin in which the must was collected and allowed to rest.

Images 1 & 2: The excavated wine press and an artistic reconstruction of the installation (adapted from Orsingher et al. 2020). The wine press was constructed on the slope of the tell which helped the flow of the must from the treading basin to the sunken vat.

And since this wine press is a press that keeps giving, another important discovery that makes it unique is the way its plaster coating was made. Plaster consists of two portions – the binder (the main paste element) and the aggregates (coarse particles included in the binder to harden and hold the paste together). The binder element of the plaster at Tell el-Burak consisted of lime, which is a commonly used element in plaster and one that is easily obtained from the local geology of the Levantine coast that is rich in limestone. The novelty, however, lies in the aggregate portion of this coating material.

Unlike most plaster discovered in the region that used local sand rich in shells and microfossils, Tell el-Burak included grog, or crushed ceramics, instead. This improved the properties of the plaster by rendering it more water resistant, increasing its stiffness, and reducing its chances of cracking.

The Tell el-Burak plaster constitutes the first evidence for this particular technological innovation. Nevertheless, it is likely that neighbouring settlements also shared in this knowledge and practice. Only similar archaeometric analyses on plaster samples from the southern Levant will confirm this, and will allow archaeologists to better understand this particular technology and the extent of its diffusion in the area.

In conclusion, all these findings indicate that Tell el-Burak constituted a dynamic center for winemaking, and was actively involved in enhancing local manufacturing traditions and structures in order to produce elements with superior mechanical properties that would enable better and more efficient production.

So whenever you sit there, sipping on your wine, no matter where you are in the world, remember that you owe some part of it to those folks in Phoenicia who certainly knew what they were doing (and tasting). So, as the locals now say – Késkon! Cheers!

1The Tell el-Burak Archaeological Project

2The information in this blog post was obtained from the open access publication of the archaeological study: Orsingher, A., Amicone, S., Kamlah, J., Sader. S. & C. Berthold. 2020. Phoenician Lime for Phoenician Wine: Iron Age Plaster from a Wine Press at Tell el-Burak, Lebanon. Antiquity 94: 377, pp. 1224-1244.

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