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Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture    by Patrick E. McGovern order for
Ancient Wine
by Patrick E. McGovern
Order:  USA  Can
Princeton University Press, 2003 (2003)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Here's a tasty twist to the well-aged field of archaeology, the investigation of the origins of the vino that the more mellow of us enjoy imbibing today. Ancient Wine makes a fascinating detective story, as McGovern explains how he and coworkers tracked down the beginnings of viniculture. It's an account of appeal to students of ancient history, wine aficionados and anyone interested in an unusual application of modern scientific techniques. The author's background in both chemistry and archaeology (with a specialization in Middle Eastern archaeology) made him uniquely suited for this investigation. The fact that he is an obvious oenophile adds a charming personal touch.

Though the book covers various scientific analyses, it is still very accessible to the non-scientist, since the analytical discussion is concise with a minimum of jargon (ample references are available for the more technologically-inclined). McGovern's lab has applied inorganic chemical techniques such as neutron activation to ascertain pottery sources and learn about ancient trade routes. A more recent focus has been on the organic residues found in wine, the object being to identify key marker compounds preserved in the pottery in order to prove the presence of ancient beverages such as wine and beer. DNA analyses of modern and ancient grapes, as well as residues of the ancient yeast associated with wine fermentation, are underway to further understand the presence of wine in archaeological samples.

Ancient Wine is organized into sections on areas of the ancient world from Mesopotamia to Egypt, Greece and Rome - covering Paleolithic times to the classical Mediterranean world. Wine has had a pivotal place in culture for many millennia with a multitude of uses, aside from the obvious of course! Its red color has often been equated with blood in religious ceremonies, and ancient texts and paintings also document its use in occasions demonstrating royal power and as an effective 'social lubricant' (that surely hasn't changed through human history). Perhaps most important of all, wine was a healthier drink than the often contaminated water available to our ancestors.

McGovern postulates that the roots of wine trace back to Pleistocene times, when according to the 'Paleolithic Hypothesis' people may have stumbled on the residues of naturally fermented grapes and been pleasantly surprised by their taste and effect. Of course, there is no surviving evidence for this, but the discovery of grape remains in ancient sites makes it plausible. The 'Noah Hypothesis' relates to evidence supporting the origins of purposeful wine-making to Neolithic times. Some of this evidence is textual, in the Bible in fact, where the first thing Noah does after the ark lands on Mount Ararat is to plant a vineyard. Indeed the author tells us that 'Wine is referred to some 140 times in the Bible.'

The Gilgamesh creation myth mentions grape vines spotted by the hero on his travels. Thanks to McGovern's work, there is now also firm scientific evidence for ancient wine stretching back to 5400 B.C., in Iran at the site of Haji Firuz. This was the time when people were first domesticating plants and animals and starting to build villages. Apparently it was just as important to develop the skills to make ancient wine as it was to grow wheat and barley for bread - sensible folk in those days.

The book traces wine's development in other areas of the near East and Mediterranean and even up into the Caucasus Mountains. One of the most interesting segments describes the analysis of food and beverage remains in the immense tumulus at Gordion in Turkey. Reputed to be the tomb of King Midas (famed for his golden touch), this was the site of an elaborate burial feast. The author was able to analyze remains from the 1950's excavation to determine what had been eaten and drunk at the feast. Later, working with a local brewer and a chef, McGovern and the University of Pennsylvania Museum re-enacted the 'Feast fit for King Midas' to rave reviews only 2700 years after the original.

The topic provides an opportunity for wonderful quotations, from Omar Khayyam to Alcaeus of Mytilene ... 'Bacchus, son of Semele / And of Zeus, discovered wine / Giving it to man to be / Care's oblivious anodyne.' I especially enjoyed the author's speculations at the end of the book about the impact of 'wine's tangible and seemingly other-worldly potency' on early humanity. Readers are in for an intoxicating treat in Ancient Wine, which may be best enjoyed sipping a glass of red (I recommend an Aussie Shiraz or Californian Cabernet) while marvelling at the layers of history buried in each subtle, earthy taste.

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