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By Marschall, Laurence A. | Natural History, November 2003 | Go to article overview

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Marschall, Laurence A., Natural History


BOOKSHELF Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture by Patrick E. McGovcrn Princeton University Press, 2003; $29.95

So old is the love of wine, and so rich in lore and legend, that its origins remain lost in the tangles of time. In Greco-Roman legend the god Dionysus is identified with bringing the art of wine making westward, from lands east of Persia. Biblical scholars who name Noah as the first cultivator of wine grapes describe him as settling down after the flood to become the first wine maker. He loved his work so much, according to the story, that he became the first town drunk.

In one of the most charming tales about the origins of wine, from ancient Persia, a fictitious Kingjamsheed keeps jars of fresh grapes year-round, which he enjoys almost as much as he does his concubines. One of his consorts, suffering from severe headaches, mistakenly drinks from a jar containing spoiled fruit and falls into a deep slumber, from which she awakes refreshed and cured of her illness. She reports her experience to the king, who deliberately ferments his next batch of grapes, and the rest is what passed for history in those times.

In the wry judgment of a Persian poet of a later period, however, "Whoever seeks the origins of wine must be crazy." Clearly, the problem is not the lack of evidence but too much of it. Millions of clay pots that may have held intoxicating beverages are buried at countless archaeological sites. Pictures of drinkers and grape stompers decorate tomb walls and ceremonial vessels from sites throughout the ancient world. In the Fertile Crescent alone, so many clay tablets record the holdings of royal wine cellars and the commerce of wine makers that experts have translated and studied only a fraction of them so far.

And then there is a wealth of linguistic and cultural evidence. Dozens of living rituals, from the kiddush, or Sabbath "blessing over wine," which is central to Jewish life, to the communion wine of Christianity, attest to an ancient connection between wine and civilization.

Patrick E. McGovern, who heads the Molecular Archaeology Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, brings a unique set of skills to this daunting study. He's a practitioner of molecular archaeology, an emerging field that applies the precision tools of microchemical analysis to the study of prehistoric artifacts. By measuring the precise mix of isotopes in a potsherd, for instance, he can identify its source in a specific clay deposit, and tie it to other pots whose locations trace out trade routes and cultural migrations that would otherwise remain unknown. Scrapings of residue from pots can identify key ingredients that once were stored inside them, even if only a few micrograms of material remain. The jumble of ancient remains can be sorted out to reveal hidden patterns of wine usage and distinctive variations in wine composition never before suspected.

With those tools McGovern and his coworkers have investigated wine culCures that go back well before written records. The ancient legends, it turns out, may have contained more than a "grape seed" of truth. The first wines, he believes, were made at least 7,000 years ago in the Caucasus, perhaps in the shadow of Mount Ararat, where Noah's ark supposedly came to rest. From there, not surprisingly, the art of wine making spread quickly: down the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, along the coast of the Levant to Egypt, and west to Turkey and Greece.

Molecular archaeology can identify not only the source of the clay pots but the substances they once contained. Many early wines, judging from the residues they left, were liberally mixed with pungent tree resins that probably served as preservatives in the absence of effective seals for containers. Few today except the Greeks, who continue to produce and consume retsina table wine, seem to regard the practice as anything other than an odd way to spoil a god-given drink. …

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