The ancient Greeks took wine to the masses, the Romans to the world. But it was the innovation of the Cypriots that showed them how, say archaeologists.
Italian experts claim to have unearthed evidence suggesting not only did Cyprus introduce clay drinking goblets and wine jars for transport, but it had at least a 1,500-year head start on any of its Mediterranean cousins in the art of making wine.
“It’s an amazing discovery,” says research head Maria Rosaria Belgiorno. “The most ancient wine seems to have been found in a 5,000-5,500 BC vase in Ajjii Firuz Tepe in Iran... but in the Mediterranean, the earliest examples of winemaking have been in Cyprus.” With a tradition steeped in history, the quality of the “honey flavored” Cypriot wines was praised by the ancient Greek poet Homer, and, subject to some scholarly debate, by King Solomon.
Historians say Commandaria, a sweet dessert wine introduced to Europe by the Crusaders, has been made on the island since at least 1,000 BC. It is thought to be the world’s oldest wine still in production.
Belgiorno, of the Italian Institute of Technologies Applied to Cultural Heritage, said the testing of pottery fragments showed winemaking was thriving up to 5,500 years ago.
The earliest examples of winemaking, discovered on the Greek island of Crete, are about 3,600 years old. “We discovered the remains of tartaric acid, a key component of wine,” she said.
The pottery fragments, found in the wine-producing region of Erimi some 100km (62.5 miles) southwest of Nicosia, are the oldest evidence available of “nipple base” storage jars used throughout the ancient world for transporting wine. They have a narrow mouth, wide body and taper off at the bottom, designed on earlier goatskin sacks used to carry wine.
Such jars bear an uncanny resemblance to storage containers found on later Egyptian hieroglyphs. “The same vases were adopted by the Egyptians, and portrayed together with their system to make wine,” said Belgiorno. With their expertise in pottery, Cypriots also created drinking containers, modeled on cattle horns, which were believed to be the first “glasses.” “The tradition of remaking the cattle horn in clay began in Cyprus,” she said.
Lauded as a gift of the gods, a must-have by Egyptians on their spiritual journey to the afterworld and just plain good for you by modern-day science, wine had humble beginnings.
An ancient Persian legend speaks of a princess, who, having lost favor with the king, attempted to poison herself by eating spoiled table grapes. She became intoxicated instead. “It was certainly after grapes were accidentally left to ferment,” says Belgiorno. “How it became a product is a completely different story.”
Archaeologists have also discovered a representation of wine production on Cypriot pottery which is 4,000 years old. “This is unique worldwide,” said Pavlos Flourentzos, director of the Cyprus Antiquities Department. He said the type of wine was impossible to determine, but that it was probably a full-bodied red rather than a white, and unpalatable by today’s standards. “The wine they drank then was different. It was thick and extremely potent, so had to be diluted with water,” he said.
Some in ancient Greek mythology believed wine could bring people to an elevated state of consciousness. But ancient Cypriots left another testament to at least one effect of over-imbibing. Ancient Roman mosaics in the House of Dionysus, the mythological Greek god of wine and mischief, give a display of Cyprus’s “first wine drinkers" from the second century AD in the western region of Paphos. One of the men is slumped on the floor, thought to be drunk.