Charred grape seeds dating back 1,500 years were discovered recently in an archaeological excavation in the ruins of the ancient Byzantine city of Halutza, about 19 miles southwest of Beersheba.
In its heyday, in the 6th and 7th centuries A.D., Halutza or Elusa as it was called in Greek, was the most important Byzantine city of the Negev area.
The excavation is part of a broader bio-archeological research examining the rise and fall of the Negev Byzantine society, in the seventh century A.D. The research is conducted by the The Zinman Institute of Archaeology form the University of Haifa, and the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Tazpit News Agency interviewed Professor Guy Bar-Oz, one of the researchers participating in this project. Prof. Bar-Oz explained there are three main explanations for the fall of the Byzantine society in the Negev. “Climate change, Muslim conquest, and plagues all contributed to the fall. But until now there were no physical evidence to support any of these, only historical sources,” Bar-Oz told Tazpit.
“Though historical sources might provide a lot of useful information, they are very subjective to the writer’s agenda and premises. There is also different current interpretation to each source. It’s very much like a modern day newspaper, it gives you a certain perspective but it’s not enough when looking for conclusive evidence,” elaborated Prof. Bar-Oz.
The charred grape seeds were found in Halutza’s refuse dump, as the city itself was ruined over time due to stone theft. Prof. Bar-Oz explains the importance of what he calls garbage-archaeology.
“For an archaeologist, garbage is like a time capsule. We can extract a lot of useful information from garbage, like what the people of Halutza ate and drank, the pots and tools they used, and what livestock they kept,” he told Tazpit.
In regard to the broader research, Prof. Bar-Oz explained that “a change in diet or even pottery can imply a change in the culture and ethnicity of the population of Halutza. In addition, we can analyze the remains of dead animals such as rats, and through that find out whether the city was hit by plague.”
The charred grape seeds are a very interesting finding. According to historical sources from the Byzantine era, wine from the Negev or “Gaza wine”, named after the port from which it was sent to all corners of the Byzantine Empire, was considered to be of very high quality, and very expensive.
The Halutza grape seeds could be of great importance to the wine industry, because they indicate that wine was produced in the harsh desert climate of the Negev and was almost certainly grown with scarce usage of water.
“Wine production can be very much affected by changing climates. Therefore, finding a strain of seeds that can grow using only a little bit of water in a warm climate, could be a great revelation to the wine production industry,” Prof. Bar-Oz further explained.
According to Prof. Bar-Oz, the Halutza grape seeds will be recreated through DNA reconstruction. And though it won’t explain the downfall of the 7th century A.D. Byzantine society of the Negev, it could explain why the wine of the Negev was so renowned in the Byzantine Empire.