Cyprus in the prehistory of wine
Maria Rosaria Belgiorno,
1875 was the year when John Murray published in his“ Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities the William Ramsay (pp1201 1208 ) subject for “Vinum”: …”The native country of the vine was long a vexata quaestio among botanists...but…. it seems now to be generally acknowledged that it is indigenous throughout the whole of that vast tract which stretches southward from the woody mountains of Mazanderân on the Caspian to the shores of the Persian Gulf and the Indian sea, and eastward through Khorasan and Kabul to the base of the Himalaya,— the region to which history and philology alike, point as the cradle of the human race. Hence, when we consider the extreme facility of the process in its most simple form, we need little wonder that the art of making wine should have been discovered at a very remote epoch”….
The thesis was strongly confirmed in 1929 by the Russian scholar Popov and today most students believe that the wild grapevine, vitis vinifera sylvestris, originated in the area of Tran Caucasus, Turkestan and Afghanistan. But the paleo ancestor of the grapevine existed 60 millions years ago even in Italy.
Therefore since the end of 1800 it was well known that the natural environment of the wild grapevine was the mountains and it was commonly accepted that the first vitis vinifera
has been cultivated for the first time in the Himalayan valleys. Following the same spreading routes of the wild grapevine, it is common opinion that, passing trough the mountains, it arrived in the Mediterranean, finding the best habitat to produce better fruits. Moreover both the vitis sylvestris (wild)
were and are distributed in the world along precise belts.
It is obvious that you can obtain wine as from the vitis sylvestris as well as from the sativa, but the wine is very different. We can recognise through the shape of the seeds the wild and the cultivated grapevine. But we can not use them as a diagnostic chronological data, because the wild grapes continue to exist still today and have always been used as rootstock for specific vines. To give an example in Italy we have the very famous wine Lambrusco, from vites labruscae (named by Plinius Secundus the senior), which were simply the vitis silvestris because labrusca means wild.
In any case the presence of wild grape seeds in Neolithic context has often been considered as evidence of a primitive wine making attempt.
In Italy the finding of the first grape seeds in Neolithic sites date back to the end of 1800 and now the list comprises a large number of sites distributed along the entire peninsula. If the presence of wild grape seeds should be considered evidence of a primitive wine making attempt, Italy could be one of the most ancient place were wine was produced, and the most interested in that business in the Neolithic period.
Invisible spies of the grape presence are also the pollens which can be identified by experts in the stratigraphy of a digging but it is difficult to say if they belong to the wild or cultivated grapevine. Professor Pisani, one of the most important Italian scholars on the wine, who wrote hundred of books on the topic, confirms, at the end of his academic life, that wine is one of the first discoveries of man and it was probably made in rock pits many centuries before the invention of pottery. This happened somewhere along the so called wine belt and most probably in different places almost simultaneously. So we never knew who invented wine.
The name wine, given for the liquid produced by the grapes after fermentation (without addition of water), seems to come from the Egyptian hieroglyphs (wnsy) for grape raisins and (smw) for wine press which appear in the dedication records of the First dynasty tombs at Abydos (3200 BC). Funnily, the word (wnsy) for “vin(um)” predates the word (smw) for vine, as if the Egyptians had imported wine from abroad long before they have introduced the cultivation of grapevine along the Nile. One of the most ancient Egyptian vineyards was the "Star of Horus on the Height of Heaven", named in the fragmentary list of King Zoser (2600 BC) and well known in the Mediterranean trade until the Ellenistic period. Under Rameses III, we have a lists of 513 vineyards, each with its proper ”identification label” that records the Name of the Estate, the Location, the Type of wine, the Date of vintage, the Vintners name and the Assessment of quality. It was a sort of certifcate similar to the modern wine DOC label.
The Egyptians discovered that any wine could change in taste and smell depending on the place and vineyard it comes from. They were able to recognise and appreciate the differences and the quality of the wine. And they left their considerations starting to write the real history of the wine, according to the extraordinary property of grapevine to absorb the fragrances of the nearby plants and change the taste of the grapes depending from the minerals present in the soil, or from the altitude, or from the exposure to sun. Moreover they knew very well that the wine could change taste according to the place and the system of treading, as well as during the time. In the annex of Tutankhamon’s tomb 36 wine jars were found and each bore a docket in hieratic giving the date, place, and vintage of the wine, and suggesting that "Aten Domain Vineyard" wines were to be maintained for at least 21 years before drinking. Of course today we know that all the organoleptic properties of the wine belong and are deeply connected to specific human attentions and a deep knowledge which is often linked with the most ancient cultural traditions of the place.
Cyprus in the prehistory of wine
Turning back to the title of this paper “Cyprus in the prehistory of wine” we move our attention in the middle of the Eastern Mediterranean where the knowledge of wine making reached Cyprus in the fourth millennium BC, probably at its beginning. Presuming that the Mc Govern discovery of the most ancient wine at Hajji Firuz is correct, and that some of the first grape wines were produced in Iran in 5500 BC, we could suppose that the knowledge of wine making arrived in Cyprus following a millenarian caravan
route which connected the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.
The history of the wine can be told in many ways: we have chosen that of the pottery typology, because, going back in the centuries we find that in Cyprus some of the most ancient ceramic shapes are linked to the preservation and the consumption of wine. We will start from the hypothesis that wine was more ancient than the invention of pottery and that the first container used to store and transport wine has been the wineskin
(made of animal skin ).
The wineskins, mentioned and represented in the entire mythological and iconographic ancient Mediterranean repertoire are containers of safe and easy handling, employed in Europe, Mediterranean and Cyprus until few years ago to transport wine. Hung on the kitchen wall for a temporary store, it supplied a quick disposal of wine for the domestic use. Moreover its shape and dimension depended by many factors often linked to the size of the animals. The largest containers were made using the entire skin of the animal, trying to maintain the dimensions as much as possible, knotting the skin at the legs and the tail. The opening of the neck functioned to pour the wine and it was eventually closed by the same rope used for hanging it on the wall. It is interesting to notice that the wineskin in Greek language is named askos, a word attributed in the archaeological dictionary to vases of modest dimensions and animal shaped or adorned by animal heads (sometimes human), probably in memory of the original wineskin used to serve wine.
The transition from the wineskin to a clay container should have faced many difficulties as the wine is a living liquid, in continuous transformation, especially when it is fresh made. It is well known that if the fermentation is still in process the container can’t be closed. In turn when the fermentation is going to end, the wine has to be preserved from the contact with the air; otherwise it will change in vinegar.
So gradually the standard primitive jars used for every domestic purpose in the Neolithic period took up a specific shape, proper to store wine. First of all the neck of the vase became more narrow and with a hole mouth to facilitate the corking and the possibility to cover the liquid with olive oil or resin to prevent its oxygenation. In a second time the vase took up an elongated shape, with a pointed base to collect the wine sediments to the bottom. If we compare the shape of Hajji Firuz's (Armenia) vase,( considered the most ancient wine jar, 5500 BC), with the Egyptian and the Godin Tepe later wine jars we can observe the evolution
of the shape that in the centuries became the roman amphora with the characteristic pointed base.
Until to day, little attention was paid to the shape of some Chalcolithic Cypriote jars found at Erimi by Porfirios Dikaios in 1932-35, during the excavations at Erimi/Bamboula. The Erimi egg shaped jars have a long narrow neck and a nipple base very similar to the late Greek- Roman jars, but their chronology goes around the 3500 BC, according to the Department of the Antiquities of Cyprus. That chronology points to exclude that they could be a direct evolution of the late Egyptian jars. Even because the most ancient Egyptian jars have the handles which are facilities absent as on Erimi and Hajji Firuz jars, as on the Godin Tepe ones (3200 BC). Eventually the handles could be a later facility entered in the Cypriote pottery typology at the end of Chalcolithic period.
Furthermore to prove that the Erimi jars have been intentionally made to store wine, it was organised an analytical program to examine the possible deposit remains at the bottom of jar bases. Luckily most of the pottery excavated by Dikaios is still unwashed in its original boxes since 1935 at the storage room of Limassol Archaeological Museum, and it is still possible to take samples of the original residues. The samples from 18 fragmentary bases, analysed directly in the laboratory of Limassol Museum gave interesting results. 12 contained a large amount of tartaric acid, which is the characteristic acid of the wine; meanwhile 6 contained only traces of the same acid (see hereby Lentini tab. 2).
The analyses confirmed that the Chalcolithic pointed jars were specific vases for wine, positioning them at the beginning of the evolution of the wine amphora typology. In addition, regarding the characteristic pointed base similar to a clapper of a bell, it is possible that it was in the Bronze Age a symbolic addition to point the content of the vase as suggested by some Red Polished jugs found at Pyrgos-Mavroraki (1850 BC), with interesting pointed bases, inside which we have found evidence of tartaric acid.
In the archaeological typology the pottery associated with the wine was the traditional paraphernalia for the famous Greek symposium, where the men use to collect themselves to spend time drinking wine. The late shapes for the" wine party" were probably unknown in the prehistoric times, when the common vessel to drink was the horn of goat or cattle considered the first drinking glass. The horn cut at the base, empty and cleaned inside is perhaps the most ancient object to drink wine, whose employment logically it is conditioned by the presence of cattle and goats in the territory. The perishability of the horns however contributed to leave scarce traces of their use in the archaeological contests. However we can presume that, according to the presence of the animals, it was used in Cyprus since the Neolithic period. Moreover from the etymologic studies we know that the word ceramic (pottery), which identifies the objects made of fired clay, probably comes from the Greek word Keras which means horn, as recently reaffirmed by S. Seal and M.I. Baraton, “Toward Applications of Ceramic Nanostructures”, MRS Bulletin January 2004).:…”The word ceramics comes from the Greek keras, horn. In prehistoric times horns were used as containers; later ceramic containers made out of clay were used to store food, water, wine, oil. Ceramic describes the working of the clay. The hardening of the clay under the hot desert sun may have given our ancestors the idea that clay would harden even more if subjected to firing. It was the right understanding, and since then ceramics have been part of human civilization”.
But In Cyprus at the beginning of Early Bronze Age, a special vase shaped as horn appeared in the pottery repertoire, among the funerary goods in many tombs of the island.
The restitution of the drinking horns in ceramics, copying the real dimension and shape of the horn is an exclusive Cypriote product, characteristic of the very beginning of II millennium BC, when in the Middle East civilizations we find the first Rhytons, which were drinking horns (sometimes with an animal horned head) too, made in terracotta or metal. The tradition could be related to common apotropaic beliefs, linked to the fertility power of the bull, in some relation with the excitement produced by the opportunity to drink wine.
In the Late Bronze Age the drinking horn (clay)
was transformed into a conical vase, similar to the so called Mycenaean Rhyton, which is a characteristic Mycenaean vase, whose shape was probably influenced by the Egyptian type, furnished by a side handle.
Later, from the symposium scenes represented on the Attic vases and on the walls of the Etruscan tombs we know that the use of the cattle horns to drink wine widely continued. But we have evidence that the horns to drink wine did not passed of fashion in the next periods. And that the Romans spread its use to the Northern European countries together with their conquests.
Thanks them we found to day the tradition to drink wine using the bullhorns in all European countries and in Russia.
However it is possible that the European tradition is linked with the Celtic culture which is believed to have been influenced by the Etruscans before the Romans.
Turning back to Cyprus is curious to note that the horns (of cattle and goats) have been used without solution of continuity until to day and that the village tradition conserves the memory of their use during special occasions or festivities and during the wine festivals organised every year to welcome the new wine. In addition in many Cypriote villages, eventually famous for their production of wine, there are house-museums, where it is possible to see among the wineskins, the pumpkins used as funnels and ladles, and the giant old jars belonged to the grandfather wine equipment and the horns hung on the wall.
In these villages it is also possible to see some ancient “linos” to make wine. They were medium size or large rooms equipped with a stone built basin to tread grapes. The basins were strategically positioned under a large opening on the roof from which the grapes were thrown down. The basin was provided by a hole on the side bottom which allowed to collect the liquid after fermentation and eventually to transfer that in large jars positioned nearby.
This equipment are not far from that used in prehistoric times represented on some scenic vases as the famous Pyrgos vase found in a tomb of the 19 century BC. The plastic decoration of the vase is composed by many figurines of men, women and animals all attending at wine making. The representation develops around the principal female figure engaged in foot treading grapes in an oval vat furnished of a large spout from which the liquid is intended to be collected in a large bowl. This is one of the most ancient representation of wine making, the unique realised in pottery to date.
The vat for treading grapes made of stones, cement or bricks, is still one of the most used home wine equipment in Europe, but in Cyprus few examples survive in their original context. The best preserved is located at Erimi in the A.Georghios cave not far from the village. The cave recently reopened and cleaned was full equipped for making and storage the wine, and the built implements are almost intact including the large hole on the ceiling from which the grapes were throw down in the "linos". The entrance of Aghios Georghios cave was hidden by large stones, probably since the XVI century, when Erimi suffered a kind of wine damnatio memoria. Unfortunately to day the village, from which comes one of the most ancient Mediterranean wines, and the most ancient examples of wine jars no longer have any vineyards cultivated in its land and no family produces wine.
But for a sort of retaliation joke, Erimi hosts the only wine museum of Cyprus, organised by people who didn’t know they had chosen the right place.
This short paper is far to give an exhaustive description of the ancient history of the Cypriote wine and should be considered only an introduction of the subject and of the project for future investigations on the origins and evolution of the wine culture in Cyprus.
I would like to conclude mentioning the survival in Cyprus of the ancient Greek festival of Aiora, which probably originated in the Aegean Bronze age. The Aiora took place on the last day of Anthesteria and was the Festival of Flowers which honoured the god Dionysus and celebrated the year's vintage. It was a three day festival, occurring around February 25th-27th. On the first day of the festival, the jars of wine from the previous year's harvest were opened. The statue of Dionysus was carried to his temple, and the offerings were made. On the second day all temples (except Dionysus' one) were closed, and the dead were then free to take part in the earthly celebrations. Everyone drank wine. Lot of wine. The last day of the celebration commemorated the death of Erigone. She was the daughter of king Ikarios, who, according to the legend brought viticulture to Athens. She hanged herself when her father was killed by drunken shepherds thinking to have been poisoned by him. Girls on swings purify the vintage from this tragic murder.
represented in the Attic vases is to day a famous Greek and Cypriot festival linked with the wine and the engagement of the young girls in search of a husband. Until recent years, the Cypriote families which possessed a pointed arch in front of their house use to hang a swing during the Anthesteria days (now included in the Easter period) for their girls, and the movement of the Aiora swings was followed by a traditional song. Regarding this old tradition is curious to note the existence in Crete of a Bronze Age clay model of a girl on swinging. One famous representation of the beginning of late Bronze Age comes from Aghia Triada, Crete, but we don't have more indications about its symbol. However if that representation was connected with the new wine the "swing’s Cypriote wine festival could be a tradition coming back directly from the II millennium BC.