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Israel isn't particularly famous for its wine today, but 4,000 years ago, during the Bronze Age, vineyards in the region produced vintages that were prized throughout the Mediterranean and imported by the Egyptian elite.
Last summer, archaeologists discovered a rare time capsule of this ancient drinking culture: the world's oldest known wine cellar, found in the ruins of a sprawling palatial compound in Upper Galilee.
The mud-brick walls of the room seem to have crumbled suddenly, perhaps during an earthquake. Whatever happened, no one came to salvage the 40 wine jars inside after the collapse; luckily for archaeologists, the cellar was left untouched for centuries. [In Images: An Ancient Palace Wine Cellar]
Excavators at the site took samples of the residue inside the jars. In a study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers describe what their chemical analysis turned up: biomarkers of wine and herbal additives that were mixed into the drink, including mint, cinnamon and juniper.
Archaeologists unearthed the wine cellar at a site called Tel Kabri in present-day northern Israel, near the borders of Syria and Lebanon. As far back as the Stone Age, the area's springs attracted settlers. During the second millennium B.C., a more centralized Canaanite community of thousands of people popped up around a palace, said Andrew Koh, an archaeologist at Brandeis University who was one of the excavators on the dig.
The compound was at its peak between 1900 B.C. and 1600 B.C. Artifacts and paintings found at the site suggest this community had contact with Egypt, Mesopotamian cultures to the north and east, and the Minoan civilization that arose in Crete.
Koh and colleagues were excavating an area they thought was outside the palace when they found a 3-foot-tall (1-meter) jar they dubbed "Bessie." The team eventually turned up 39 more jars in a room measuring about 16 feet by 26 feet (5 by 8 meters), conveniently located next to a banquet hall. All together, the vessels would have held around 528 gallons (2,000 liters) of wine.