Books / History / Wine

Earliest Known Wine Barrels

Greek amphoras

Greek amphoras/amphorae serving as wine jars

Image from this page on amphoras.

Reading about wine these days in historian Rod Philips’s highly readable A Short History of Wine. As you know or imagine, the first grape juice was fermented in animal skins and earthenware jars. In fact, the first such jars, with a capacity of nine liters, date back to 5400-5000 BC in the neolithic period. What’s interesting is that the wine was mixed to some extent with resin from the terebinth tree, which grew in the northern part of the Zagros mountains of present-day Iran. Archaeologists also found clay stoppers next to the jars, which, of course, prevented the wine from turning into vinegar.

Also in the Zagros mountains, but around 3500-3000 BC, larger vessels were discovered: thirty- and sixty- liters jars.

Wonder how old the crafts of pottery is? Apparently some 8,000 years.

But what about wine barrels? Well, according to a book, very differently put together but with interesting trivia, Andrew Jones’s Wine Fact and Fiction: Facts, Legends and Helpful Advice for Wine Consumers, the famous Greek historian Herodotus of the 5th century BC mentioned that Assyrians used to make barrels from palmwood in order to transport wine. Not clear if they also used them to store wine.

Rod Philips has a chapter on Egypt, and then he moves on to wine trade between Egypt and Crete, dating back to 2,500 BC. The extent of the Greek wine trade, which followed the Egyptian one, can be ascertained by thousands of pottery amphoras throughout Europe. The same amphoras the Greek used to ship olive, oils, and other goods.

Now, you’ve probably seen lots of Greek amphoras (or amphorae) with mythological scenes, whether in museums or traveling in Greece. But note that many of these amphoras which served as wine jars had a pointed base. And the ones I saw online weren’t painted at all.

Getting to wood barrels in a minute.

Many bits of amphorae are now on the floor of the Mediterranean Sea. Off the French southern coast, one ship was loaded with no less than 10,000 amphoras. The French liked their wine even then.

As for wooden barrels, I’m reading here that they became common in the first century AD.

More wine history and trivia to come! In the meantime, I recommend this book, Rod Philips’s A Short History of Wine, to any wine lover who’s also interested in reading about history through the perspective of everything wine-related in a society: viticulture, trade, religion, social class, etc.

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