Areni, Vayots Dzor region, Armenia
The news came inadvertendly a few months ago under the form of an austere, fact-filled press release : the oldest known winery facility to this day on planet Earth was discovered in a deep cave known under the name of Birds' cave in the Armenian mountainous region of Areni, a small village close to the border with Iran and Nakhitchevan (an Azeri enclave in Armenian territory). An international team led by the Armenian archaeologist Boris Gasparyan (pictured on left) unearthed a vast complex of buried ceramics and clay containers, some of them turning out to constitute an elaborate winemaking facility, complete with the press, the fermentation vat and the storage/élevage vats, the whole thing dating from about 4100 B.C.
This all started actually long time ago during the soviet years, when Boris Gasparyan as a young student and aspiring archaeologist travelled with friends through the scenic canyons of the region, walking into several of the many natural caves that dot the cliffs here. At this time he already spotted some artifacts surfacing from this particular cave, which goes under the name of Birds' Cave, and he dreamed of coming back one day there digging seriously...
This whole region of southern Caucasus including Georgia, Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaidjan and Iran has a potential for fabulous archaeological discoveries capable of shedding light on the ancient and sophisticated civilizations that thrived here some 6000 years ago and where wine making might have deep roots. This particular discovery could be the first of many more as the Areni-1 cave was undoubtly not the only place in the area where wine was made at this ancient time.
The winery aspect of this multi-faceted site is only one prominent archaeological gem among several others as Areni-1 has been yielding countless artifacts since the begenning of the excavations in 2007, raising puzzling questions about the relations between the diffent uses of this cave : winery, burial ground, food storage and sacrificial temple where wine played a central role....
The picture above doesn't show the winery facility, these are just storage jars with clay stoves at the entry of the cave.
Armenia is now a small country of 3 millions (but with an important diaspora abroad), with a territory a fraction of what it was in the past, much of the historic Armenia now lying in present-day Iran, Azerbaidjan and Turkey. The country faced a tumultuous past and fought many wars for survival, which explains why Armenia's military is considered one of the most deterrent of the region. It also benefits from the assistance of Russia, a long-time ally which kept numerous troops here even after the independance and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Like elsewhere in the former soviet republics, Russian is still widely spoken and that's the language many foreign expats use here to communicate with locals, including the relative of mine where I stayed and who has been working here for a several-months long mission.
Back to the Birds' Cave : It is located one kilometer from the village in a narrow valley with a tumultuous river named Arpa flowing in the middle. First, I must thank archaeologist Boris Gasparyan (pic on top left) whom I contacted and met, and also Birthright Armenia which allowed me to join a group of 12 young foreign volunteers of Armenian origin (mostly Americans - pics on right and left ) who were in the middle of a several-months-long stay in Armenia and who had a scheduled visit of the cave the following day after I spoke to Boris. The cave is to this day not open for visitors or tourists, but Birthright Armenia has occasionally access to the inside for the young members of the diaspora to learn about their roots. As its website states, Birthright Armenia was created in 2004 with the sole purpose of sponsoring young Armenians from around the globe on life-changing experiences lasting several months. The program organizes excursions to help young Armenians learn more about their ancestry, to enrich their Armenian identity, and to establish many new relationships.
Note : on the picture on right, you can see mount Ararat in the far. Mount Ararat is cherished in the heart of all Armenians, that's where Noah landed his Ark and it keeps a special place in this country which has been the earliest christian nation of our era. The fact that mount Ararat lies inside Turkey boundaries since 1932 doesn't tone down the love that Armenians devote to this mystical mountain.
Dina Zardaryan (pictured here on left/left), who is in her late twenties, is one of the researchers who took part to the diggings. She found at this precise spot near the entry of the cave a light leather shoe in almost pristine condition which was dated after separate, lengthy analysis at specialized laboratories of Oxford, UK and the University of California, as having been made circa 3500-3600 B.C. We're speaking of an elegant, delicately-made leather shoe dating from 5600 years ago... The next oldest leather shoe discovered was the one of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5,300-year-old frozen mummy which was discovered in 1991 in the Italian Alps.
Diana Zardaryan explains in detail this finding and the questions around it (plus all the other achaeological discoveries and challenges including the ones of the winery facility part) on an unofficial transcript in Russian : her Areni Cave report is a mine of first-hand information about the Areni-1 work and if you don't master Russian, definitely use an online translator to read it, the automatic translation is not perfect but we usually understand the meaning. Like Boris Gasparyan's adventure, her transcription tell about a fairy tale come true. Keep your wildest dreams alive in a corner of your mind, I would say after reading her story on this shoe finding : Diana had always been dreaming to find Chalcolitic shoes since the start of her career in archaeology, and she was precisely the one in the small team appointed to dig the entrance part of the cave who found the shoe... Her colleagues on the spot were fellow researchers Tamara Bagoyan and Kristine Olshansky (center & right on pic on left). First, go see this shoe on this page, and enlarge the pic with clicking on it. The grass inside was there when it was found, it may have been placed there to make the shoe keep its shape when not used, or to dry the leather after use. This shoe, which is made with a 2,12-millimeter-thick leather, is a right shoe and would go by the European size of 37 today, can be seen at the National History Museum in Yerevan. When I first saw it it made me think of interior shoes of the brand Isotoner that B. wears at home. To think that people 6000 years ago also had these type of delicate shoes is puzzling... The museum in Yerevan also displays countless artifacts found in this Areni-1 archeological site, plus things from other sites in Armenia including a couple of big, incredible four-wheeled pulling wagons dating from 1800 B.C. with whole wooden wheels that were found near lake Sevan in the village of Lchashen. The items exhibited in this museum, including the ones unearthed in the other Armenian sites, are very surprising as they paint a picture of a very advanced civilization in spite of the remote age.
Asked about the shoe itself, Boris Gasparyan told me that this moccassin-style shoe was of the type of those weared by villagers in the region till the beginning of the 20th century. The design is indeed elegant and could be seen today without surprise.
In the same area they found two other shoes, one is half burnt and of another design, and the other was obviously a shoe in the making. For some reason the person who was making it never completed the shoe and it was discarded unfinished. These two items are still studied and there's no publication about them yet.
See also this article on Diana Zardaryan's finding.
The trench 3 (picture on top) at the entrance of the cave shows the 2nd Chalcolitic horizon, and from is known to this day, it had a multifunction role including storage of food, wine and other things.
To better understand how the cave looks like from the outside to the inside, and to see how the young archaeologists worked, watch this video (in English), courtesy if Diana Zardaryan.
The people who were living in this area belong to the Kura-Araks culture or were their predecessors. The ealiest evidence of this culture was found in the Ararat plains and it expanded to Georgia and other parts of the Near-East, as far north as present-day Daghestan and Chechnya and south in present-day Syria and Israel. The Kura-Araks people knew four-wheeled wooden carts and a couple of these stunning carts dating from 1800 B.C. (Middle Bronze age) in the lake Sevan basin (Lchasen tomb field).
An important part of the job during the excavation has been the sieving of the earth and dust in order to recover and tag any organic element or debris of interest. This was Tamara Bagoyan's task and it was an arduous one with all the dust it generated.
After a few minutes at the entry of the cave, we prepared for reaching the dark part of the cave by walking between two narrow and tall walls (picture on left). As you can see on the picture on right, only part of the surface has been dug in much of the cave, which leaves lots of potential findings on this site, including ones related to the winemaking facility.
Now you would like to understand how what you see here relate to a press and a fermentation vat : the press is the central shallow clay structure with a thick rim around it and an opening on the side. The grapes would be stomped under the feet in small quantities, the juice flowing through the opening into the jar beneath where it would ferment. Load after load of wholeclustered grapes would be pressed this way, and this method is known to have been still very common around the Mediterranean until the 19th century. The large clay structure in the foreground is not winery related, it is a burial jar, proving again that the wine had a ritual role with the death.
Asked if they found foreign elements in the winery area that could hint at wine practices or spices addings, Boris Gasparyan says that among the dessicated grape clusters and other grape debris and must, they found some wheat and barley, which means that the winemakers of that ancient era added these for the fermentation process. He remembers that Xenophontos wrote in the 4th century B.C. that he saw wheat and barley floating at the surface of the wine when passing Armenia. Some people thought he was mistaking beer for wine but Boris Gasparyan says that even before finding these remains at Areni-1 he was sure that there was a practice of adding wheat and barley to facilitate the fermentation in those ancient times.
Three clay pots with each a teenager-girl skull inside were also unearthed nearby the winery facility. There's a tradition in this era and region to bury babies under living quarters of house for fertility purposes, but it's the first time a similar practice has been applied to a quasi-industrial winery facility., One of the skulls had still some remains of brain material inside with visible brain vessels, the particular conditions of the cave along with the surrounding mineral influence and stable temperature having allowed this exceptional conservation. The brain tissue is being analysed by scientists and should yield more informations. Boris Gasparyan tells me that they also found in the winery sector a big, double-ended metal pick, something amazing for this Chalcolitic period. This pick is a weapon meant for killing. His impression (not scientific, he warns as the research is still underway) is that the people brought these girls here, dressed them nicely, washed their feet to make them press the grapes and then would kill them before doing the ritual to send a message to their gods. There was no trace of blood in the wine items themselves but the human bones show signs of violent weapon and blood which means the teenage girls (aged 12 to 14) didn't die of natural causes. Boris Gasparyan says that they're working now in reconstructing the scenario.
The pictures on the sides show excavated parts of the cave where we could not access.
On this picture above you can see a medieval oven. The people who built it assembled it atop Chalcolitic structures and damaged them in the process, each successive era building on the previous one like usual along human History. The jars and clay containers in that part of the cave were economy related (not for ritual), and used for the storage of edible goods. Grossly, says Boris Gasparian, the ritual activity was in the inside part of the cave and the economical activity was in the front part. There was also in the front of the cave lots of garbage that accumulated in some parts, burned or not burned, but obviously garbage.
The archaeological work is on a standstill for now but the reserch will resume later this year, here and in other caves in the vicinity. They have already a huge volume of artifacts and organic remains of all sort to process and analyze and they want to minimize the excavations in the cave, prioritizing the consolidation and protection of the site. The diggings in other caves around may help determine if this Areni-1 site is unique or if this winery/ritual/storage facility was a norm at that time. Also, Areni-1 could be a temple not reproduced elsewhere, leaving the possibility that winemaking production for daily consumption could have existed.
Speaking of the vineyards producing the grapes that were vinified here, they were probably grown along the slopes at the foot of the cliffs in these canyons (my guess here). Watch this video on the left shot along a canyon starting from the cave. There's a yellowish, torrentuous stream that runs in the middle and you can imagine the mystic beauty it had when there was no road and just a narrow path 6000 years ago.
The picture on right shows the Arpa river in the foreground some 500 meters before reaching the Areni-1 cave (or Birds' cave), which is situated in the right-hand cliff in the center of the picture.
The Areni excavation is a joint international operation headed by Boris Gasparyan of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography (National Academy of Science). Beyond the Armenian team of researchers, the foreign partners are Gregory Areshyan, assistant director from the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA, and Ron Pinhasi, co-director from the University College in Cork, Ireland.
The foundations that contribute support for the excavation and post-excavation research are the Gfoeller Foundation Inc. (leading foundation), the Steinmetz Foundation, the Boochever Family Trust, the Chitjian Family Foundation and the National Geographic Society.
Satellite view on Areni-1 cave (horizontal sunbeams leave part of the valley in the shadow)
Document about wine production around 4000 BC in Near-Esatern highlands (Boris Gasparyan)
New York Times article
Diana Zardaryan's Areni-cave page (in Russian)
UCLA newsletter on Areni-1
Russian TV report (with Boris Gasparyan & Diana Zardaryan)
Video interview in English of archaeologist Ron Pinhasi about the oldest shoe finding
Birthright Armenia (in English) : helping young foreigners discover Armenia (photo gallery)
Document about the Kura-Araks culture
On the Kura-Aracks culture and the Garden of Eden