Wine's Deep Roots
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
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
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
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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