Archeologists Uncover Massive 1,500-Year-Old Wine Making Factory In Israel

Published October 12, 2021

The sprawling site in Yavne, Israel, once produced half a million gallons of wine a year and exported it around the ancient world.

Yavne Wine Factory

MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty ImagesThe wine factory in Yavne was the world’s “largest” at the time.

Raise a glass — the largest known Byzantine-era wine factory has been unearthed in Israel.

The sprawling site in Yavne — 15 miles south of Tel Aviv — extends 75,000 square feet and includes five wine presses, as well as warehouses. Some 1,500 years ago, the wine factory was the largest in the world.

“[The wine] was taken to many, many countries around the Mediterranean,” explained Jon Seligman, one of the leaders of the excavation. “We’re talking Egypt, we’re talking Turkey, Greece, maybe to southern Italy as well.”

The excavation, which began two years ago, offers an impressive look at how ancient people mass-produced wine. Barefoot workers once crushed grapes with their feet on the treading floor, before others collected the liquid and fermented it in large vats. Warehouses on-site provided a place for workers to prepare the wine for sale.

“We were surprised to discover a sophisticated factory here, which was used to produce wine in commercial quantities,” stated the directors of the excavation, led by the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Adding that the factory marketed about two million liters of wine (or 530,000 gallons) a year they said: “We should remember that the whole process was conducted manually.”

The factory produced a wine called “Gaza And Ashkelon” wine, so named for the ports it passed through. The wine was shipped in “Gazan jars,” which have been found across Europe — a sign, archeologists said, of the wine’s popularity at its peak.

“They have a specific and very recognizable shape,” explained Seligman. “The same jars were found in many places around the region, including Egypt, and we know that they were used for exporting the wine.”

People at the time — even children — often drank wine instead of water. They considered it safer, since water could sometimes be contaminated.

Gaza Jars

Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty ImagesIsrael Antiquities Authority archaeologist Liat Nadav-Ziv shows off Gazan jars found at the Yavne wine factory.

The wine factory itself also stands as a symbol of Yavne’s lost prestige. Now a quiet city, it once reigned as one of the most influential places in Israel.

“Yavne was important enough to be put in a map from the period with Jerusalem, featuring three large churches,” said Seligman, noting that it was primarily home to Christians, as well as Jews and Samaritans.

“It was located in what at the time was on a major road, called the sea highway, which went from north to south, and on its junction with the Sorek River.”

In addition to exposing Yavne’s impressive wine factory, the dig has also shed some light on the history of the town itself. Archeologists found ancient lanterns, children’s toys, and other signs of industry.

“We have been exposing an industrial area of ancient Yavne,” Seligman explained. “We found remains of other industries, for example, producing glass and metal.

“We also found remains from other periods, such as a house from the ninth century and some other buildings from the interim period between the Byzantine and Islamic periods.”

Significantly, archeologists even found traces of an even older wine factory. Another wine press discovered on the site appears to date back some 2,300 years, or to the Persian period.

The Mishna [Old Torah] even mentions a vineyard in Yavne.

“In the Mishna it is said that after the destruction of Jerusalem [which the Romans destroyed in 70 AD], the Jewish leadership migrated to Yavne, and that the sages of Yavne lived in a vineyard and studied Torah,” the archeologists explained.

“The excavation shows a continuum of existence of the wine industry at the site over many centuries.”

As for the wine itself? Seligman says that the Yavne factory produced a “prestige … light white wine.”

According to ancient texts, he said, people of the era found it “agreeable to the taste.”

After reading about the wine factory discovered in Israel, learn about other remarkable archeological discoveries in the country, including a rare fertility amulet and an ancient “piggy bank” filled with gold coins.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.