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Wine's Deep Roots

James Wright

Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture.
Patrick E. McGovern.
xx + 365 pp. Princeton University Press, 2003. $29.95.

It takes nerve to tackle a subject as wide-ranging in chronology, geography and historical variability as the study of ancient viniculture, and it takes rhetorical flourish to make such a study riveting, informative and thought-provoking. Biomolecular archaeologist Patrick E. McGovern of the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania has succeeded in doing just that. His Ancient Wine is a book to be highly recommended to lay and professional audiences alike. McGovern has trodden archaeological grapes in the most distant vineyards, and the result, despite occasional factual errors and bold pairings of pieces of evidence that are perhaps unrelated to each other, is up-to-date and convincing. Few archaeologists would have the temerity to argue, as McGovern does, for an appreciation of the importance of viniculture in socioeconomic and sociopolitical terms. In the process he introduces the reader to controversy at every point.

This jar was excavated in a Neolithic Click to Enlarge Image

The book begins with the hypothesis that during the Paleolithic era people drank fermented grapes. This raises questions of how the grape was domesticated and whether that process has anything to do with the origins of agriculture. These lines of inquiry lead to a hope that DNA analysis will allow the isolation of the earliest domesticated grapes, which, in McGovern's fertile mind, may link their probable source in Transcaucasia with the yet-to-be-demonstrated hypothesis that the Black Sea was originally an inland lake, flooded catastrophically with seawater in the mid-6th millennium B.C. The tantalizing bouquet of these first chapters is fortified by the taste of real evidence in the form of traces of tartaric acid in Neolithic storage jars from Iran, the remains of grape pips at several Near Eastern sites, and the early and consistent production of wine (and domaines and vintages) in ancient Egypt.

Wine even affects our reconstruction of ancient politics: McGovern uses his instrumental neutron activation analyses of the clay fabrics of wine transport jars to repeat his previously published and well-constructed argument that the Hyksos (revolutionary foreign rulers in Egypt from about 1800 to about 1550 B.C.) are from southern (not northern) Levant.

Discussion of the consumption of wine in Mesopotamia, where barley brews were favored, develops from a fascinating question raised in McGovern's consideration of Neolithic fermented beverages, made probably from various fruits, honey or grains. The yeast for fermentation, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, is naturally found on grapes, dates, figs and honey. He argues throughout the book that grapes, especially, would have been added to mixed brews with a high sugar content to ensure a successful outcome; thus the origin of barley beer, barley wine and the well-known Pramnian mixed wines of Classical times.

The story of the wine culture that developed in the ancient Near East and spread throughout the Mediterranean is complex and appears to follow the intertwined histories of early empires and states in the three millennia from ancient Ur to the Roman empire. The early appearance of wine in the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures of the Aegean during the Bronze Age has been demonstrated by a battery of analyses of scores of vessels, made possible by Greek scholars. This Aegean tradition has its own origins but was always open to external influences from Anatolia and Mesopotamia, especially during the Assyrian Empire in the 9th through 7th centuries B.C. In his discussion of the molecular analyses of those Bronze Age vessels in the Aegean, McGovern argues for the early existence of resinated wine, the possible use of oak for imparting flavor and the production of a barley wine mixed with honey.

This is followed up by a detailed description of the funeral feast of the legendary King Midas of Phrygia (he of the "golden touch"), based on the results of analyses of the contents of a hoard of vessels found in Midas's burial mound. McGovern argues that several fully developed etiquettes involving a wide variety of beverages and equally diverse sets of vessels for production, storage, serving and especially consumption come together in the Archaic and Classical societies of Greece and Turkey: the Phrygians, the Lydians and the Greeks.

The saga does not end there, but as McGovern states at the outset, it would take several more books to explore the place of wine in the Classical Greek, Etruscan and Roman cultures and the responsibility of those societies for introducing the grape to the Kelts, which led ultimately to the vinicultures of France and Germany. Instead he ends with an appreciation of the importance of molecular archaeology for exploring ancient foodways and of the psychosocial significance of wine consumption in the history of civilization. For the archaeologist, there is also a gentle admonition to be freer in supplying laboratories with material for analysis.

This book is like a good bottle of wine, behind which there is always a good story, one often embellished as the bottle is emptied. What happy symposiast, wandering home through the darkened jasmine-scented streets of ancient Babylon or Athens, would fault the storyteller or the wine for having made a better tale than mere evidence would warrant? Here too can be found inspiration—and new avenues for scholarly pursuit.—James C. Wright, Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology, Bryn Mawr College

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