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Liquid Knowledge: Ancient Jerusalem Wine Seasoned With Vanilla

The unearthed wine jugs help reveal what people ate and drank prior to Jerusalem’s destruction by Babylonia.

Much like today, the ancient world had a taste for vanilla.

Researchers from the Israel Antiquities Authority and Tel Aviv University were surprised to discover remnants of vanilla in wine jars from 2,600 years ago in the City of David National Park in Jerusalem.

The researchers were investigating two buildings destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. when they unearthed the eight jars. They date back to the reign of the biblical King Zedekiah, who ruled the kingdom of Judah when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and exiled the Jews.

Using chemical tests, the researchers identified remnants of vanilla molecules preserved in the tiny spaces on the side of the pottery vessels.

In a recent study published in Plos One, the scientists write that vanilla was not known to be available in the Middle East before Columbus sailed to the Americas in 1492.

The excavation of ceramic storage jars in the debris of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E offers an opportunity to examine the content of the vessels using residue analysis. This is a key method for tracing ancient materials otherwise invisible in the archeological record.

Based on the extraction and identification of preserved and altered biomolecular residues of the original contents from ceramic vessels, it’s a great tool for understanding daily life in ancient societies. It reveals information about dietary habits, funerary and cultic customs and the long-distance trade networks.

Ancient wine jugs being restored in the laboratories of the Israel Antiquities Authority. (Ortal Chalaf/restoration by Joseph Bocangolz)

Tel Aviv University doctoral student Ayala Amir, who conducted the research in the laboratories at the Weizmann Institute and Bar-Ilan University, said the “vanilla markers were an unusual find.”

Scientists believe the vanilla, considered a luxury, might have come from India via an international trade route that crossed the Negev during the seventh century B.C.E. By then, the vassal kingdom of Judah played an important role in the lucrative south Arabian trade.

A jar handle with a rosette impression associated with the royal economy in the Kingdom of Judah. (Eliyahu Yanai/City of David)

The handles of some jars carry a seal impression in the shape of a rosette, indicating the jar and its contents were part of the royal administration of the kingdom of Judah. The number of jars indicates the economic importance of wine, the scientists said.

Ortal Chalaf and Joe Uziel, directors of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said the jars will help reveal what people ate and drank prior to Jerusalem’s destruction by Babylonia.

“The jars opened a window for us,” the scientists said.

Produced in association with ISRAEL21c.

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