I always enjoyed learning how things work. Especially things we take for granted. There is that great TV show that takes us inside factories to see how things work. When I took a 9 week cross country (US) trip with my family, we loved factory tours to see how they make all kinds of things from whistles to bears. We also loved industry – our visit to the Hoover Dam was one of the highlights.
So it should be no surprise that even ancient “factories” catch my eye. I love learning how things were made and how technologies improved, but usually didn’t really change all that much.
I was out with a friend hiking in one of my favorite spots to go – Ramat HaNadiv Nature Reserve. Ramat HaNadiv is located just south of Zichron Yaacov and is on the very southern tip of the Carmel Mountain. Here, overlooking the agricultural fields, the fish ponds and the power plant, was built a farm, named by archeologists Hurvat Akev. This farm dated from the Second Temple period and had a major renovation in the Byzantine era. It was a massive compound with a guard tower, places for animals, mikvaot (Jewish ritual baths), cisterns, and an extensive agricultural center.
Today, we may look at this place and understand why people would want to live here – it is beautiful and has a gorgeous view. But you need more than beautiful vistas to make an area desirable, especially in the past. So, why is this farm here? How could it be so successful to support such a large infrastructure?
The answer can be found in the compound’s yard. In a relatively small area, there is a threshing floor, a wine press and an olive press. That’s like having 3 different factories all within your home! These three – wheat, grapes, and olives – are the most important crops of the Levant. It is very unusual to have so much different technology concentrated in one farm as the technologies are all different.
Wheat needs a high degree of processing before it becomes edible. The wheat needs to be harvested and then winnowed. This is usually done near the fields as so much of the wheat stalk is waste.
Olives were generally harvested in the fields and brought to a central processing facility. Olives travel well so you don’t need to worry about them spoiling on the way and almost all of the olives were used, with the waste providing great organic fertilizer.
Grapes, like wheat, were harvested and processed in the fields. But grapes were processed in the fields not because of the large percentage of waste, but because grapes are fragile and transporting them can interfere with the fermentation process.
We saw a Byzantine wine press with a depression which held a screw (this was the new technology of the day – increasing torque through use of a screw). I have seen many screws used for olive oil production but was unfamiliar with screws in wine production.
In olive oil production, the entire olive is crushed with a crushing stone. About 25% of the oil in olives comes from the pit; crushing the pit helps to release the oil. Then the “olive mash” is transferred to mesh baskets. The first olive juice which flows freely from this mash is the highest quality oil (virgin olive oil), with lesser quality oils released relative to the force squeezing the olive mash.
With wine, seems there is a similar process. Grapes are picked and crushed with feet so as not to crush the pits/seeds. Crushed pits/seeds in grapes make for bitter wine and feet are much gentler on the crushing process. The juice which runs off from this crushing makes for higher quality wine.
This is not the end, however. Because during the Byzantine era (4th-7th century C.E.) wine was drunk like water (literally), they wanted to extract the maximum product from the grapes. The mash which was left on the crushing floor was gathered and put into an underground pit in the center of the crushing floor. This pit was usually not so large – only about 3 feet deep – and had a channel which led to the collection pit. Then, a screw was inserted which pressed down on a piece of wood or stone to press this grape mash. This is what was called the “second pressing” and was used to make lower quality wine.
In today’s wine world, where we have clean drinking water (something not to be taken for granted), there is less of a need to get every little drop out of a grape. With modern equipment, very often the yield on second pressings is low, and is deemed not financially profitable. First pressings, or better yet, “free run” wines, however can demand a higher price and are generally higher in quality. Just like they did 2000 years ago.
The past and present meet – over a glass of wine.
Next time you are are in Israel and up for a glass of wine, or a tour through ancient wine installations, let’s do that together. Cheers!