Oldest evidence of drinking wine

20 November 2017

Interview with

Andrew Graham, University of Toronto

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Are you a wine buff with a penchant for a more mature vintage? If so, you may be interested to hear that archaeologists working in Georgia have discovered the world’s oldest evidence of imbibing. Shards of pottery dating back about 8000 years have turned up with wine residue still stuck to them. Georgia Mills spoke to Andrew Graham...

Andrew - What we have discovered is something that many people have suspected for quite some time for a number of reasons but that we have in the Shomu-Shulaveris culture in the Republic of Georgia during the neolithic, the earliest evidence of wine production in the world. If you want to use round numbers we’ll say 6000 BC, so 8000 years ago. So we’ve pushed the earliest evidence of wine back about 1000 years by this discovery.

Georgia - What did you find and how did you know it’s evidence of wine?

Andrew - Pat McGovern, who is one of our colleagues down in the United States. Pat developed a process by which to look at the residue left by wine on ceramic vessels, and one of the important things you have to remember is tartaric acid. Tartaric acid is produced in the process of making wine, so he developed a process by which he would look at the absence or presence of tartaric acid on the inside of ceramic vessels. We also test the surrounding soil so we can also test if there is tartaric acid in the soil in high amounts. It wouldn’t be a good sample because you could argue that the tartaric acid on the pottery is a remnant of the tartaric acid that is present in the soil. So looking at the soil and the residue give us the fact that the presence of tartaric means that they were storing wine, or wine was in this pottery vessel.

Georgia - Just thinking about what I’m like, how do we know these people just didn’t leave grapes out too long by mistake? Do we know they intentionally wanted to make this drink?

Andrew - Well yeah, it’s used other lines of evidence. Looking at the pottery specifically and the type of pottery it is; looking at the iconography on the pottery, one of the things that is on all of the news wires that is going out, there is a famous ceramic vessel from the neolithic site of Khramis Didi-Gora in Georgia and it’s an iconographic representation of a cluster of grapes on the rim of the ceramic vessel. And of all of the range of symbols and images they could represent on their pottery, they chose to represent grapes.

And to make wine that’s drinkable, and en masse to be able to provide for many people you can’t just leave it out. Anybody who’s left a glass of grape juice out knows that it doesn’t necessarily turn to wine - it will turn to vinegar. Do we understand how they made the wine? No, because what we have is just the residue, the evidence of the process. What we don’t have is a production facility; we don’t have where they were actually making and storing the wine during this period. So they were making and storing it somewhere, we just don’t know exactly where.

Georgia - Are you holding out hope you might discover a very aged vintage?

Andrew - Well I will say, and any archeologists listening to this programme, there’s an axiom in archeology that in any field project your greatest discoveries or the greatest challenges that you have normally appear on the last day. And certainly on our excavations last summer, on the very last day of excavation we were cleaning for site photos etc., and one of our students and Georgian colleagues was being a bit vigorous in their cleaning and did a little bit of excavation and uncovered the top of what appears to be a fully intact vessel. So we were like umm, because usually what we found on this site thus far are fragments of vessels. Unfortunately we had to rebury it because we just didn’t have the time to excavate it, so it’s a treat waiting for whoever is the lucky square supervisor to excavate next summer.

Georgia - Wow - you reburied this pot?

Andrew - We didn’t rebury it - we just recovered it. We put material on top of it, then we covered that with soil. We know where it is, no-one else knows where it is, and we’ll go and recover it.

Georgia - Brilliant! I hope it’s still there when you go back.

Andrew - Me too! Looting is an issue in all countries. We’re very fortunate however, the local communities around where we work. We have a problem of the local herders running their cows throughout site leaving us little treats every day as they move their cows through. But they keep an eye on things for us and so we’re pretty confident that everything will be as it is when we return.

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