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Rebel Science: Neolithic Iran & Wine-Making

News Category: Prehistory

 30 November 2005



Scientists are constantly searching for the clue that will define the origin of man and each new discovery brings another piece of that puzzle. Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology recently found evidence that the first bottles of wine may have been produced as far back as the Neolithic period—about 6,000 years ago.

McGovern is the author of the book "Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture" and is a leader in the field of biochemical archeology. He has a unique blend of talents that combine the techniques and methods of chemistry and archeology with his seemingly insatiable desire to explore the origins of wine.

"Fermented beverages have been preferred over water throughout the ages," said McGovern on the University of Pennsylvania, MAA Web site. "Some have even said alcohol was the primary agent for the development of Western civilization."

One of the important reasons in looking for links to wine-making in archeological exploration is that the beverages and food that humans consumed say a lot about the culture of the time and can lead to a better understanding of who we are today.

Scientists believe that the original inspiration for wine came from humans observing birds eating berries that had been naturally fermented. Once the idea caught on, however, other reasons for maintaining production became important. Wine can become a symbol of status or prestige. It can be used as an icebreaker and a way to smooth awkward social situations or to grease relationships with neighboring communities and improve trade. It can also become important in religion and the local economy.

The discovery that Stone Age humans were interested in growing fruit and developing fermentation processes provides many clues into the lifestyle of early Homo sapiens. The production of wine requires a relatively "stable base of operations," McGovern stated. His research suggests that these early Near East and Egyptian communities would have been more permanent cultures with a stable food supply and domesticated animals and plants. With this abundance of food came the need for containers that were durable and made from a material that was easily pliable—like clay. The porous structure of these clay vessels is what has made it possible for scientists to analyze wine that is thousands of years old.

Clay jars designed to hold about 2.5 gallons were found during an excavation conducted by Mary M. Voigt near the Hajji Firuz Tepe site in the Northern Zagros Mountains of Iran. A yellowish residue discovered inside a jar was tested using a variety of analyses including infrared, liquid chromatographic and wet chemical analyses. The chromatographic test showed the best proof that this was indeed wine by revealing the presence of terebinth tree resin.

"In an upland region like Hajji Firuz," McGovern explained, "the wild grapevine and the terebinth tree grew together and produced their fruit and resin about the same time of year."

The tree resin was added to the wine during fermentation to help prevent it from turning to vinegar. The combination of finding these two components in the jar together and the discovery of clay stoppers, which are the perfect size to fit the necks of the vessels, in close vicinity to the jars, all points to the probability that the grape product inside the jars was indeed wine.

In July 2004, McGovern told William Cocke of National Geographic News that he will continue his search for physical evidence of what he called "Stone Age Beaujolais nouveau," (which means either Stone Age wine ritual or new wine) by traveling to Turkey, where he hopes to find the origins of grape domestication.

"We're looking in eastern Turkey, because that's where other plants were domesticated," McGovern said. He hopes to discover the very heart of historic wine production from which viniculture flowed out into the rest of world, giving birth to new civilizations.



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Source: The Rebel Yell, University of Nevada

Related Article(s): 

Wine good and fine, The art of wine in ancient Persia, by: Professor Touraj Daryaee

Of wine and War, by: Guive Mirfendereski



By: Guive Mirfendereski

30th November 2005


The late archeologist and Iranist Roman Ghirshman believed that the Saka who stormed the Median Kingdom in the 7th century BC were settled in an area south of Lake Urumia in a place presently known as Sakkiz, which Ghirshman identified as their capital and in which name “we may recognize the name of the Scythians, or Saka as they called themselves.” This nomenclature was due, according to Ghirshman, because “the name of a people was often given to its capital.”


Ghirshman believed also that Sakkiz was one of the few villages of Kurdistan that had preserved its name from the time of the arrival of the Saka. Whether that was indeed the case, I cannot say with certainty. Naturally, say “sakkiz,” “saqqiz” or “saghiz” and an Iranian’s ears perk up because the sound conjures up gum, such as chewing gum, and also reminds one of a kind of wood. But etymologically, from a present-day perspective, who could argue with Sakkiz meaning the land of Saka, in which “kiz” referred to the quality of the land that gave rise to them. According to Dehkhoda (vol. 21, pp. 1003-1004) the word “kiz” was already in existence in the 10th century as a noun and place-name suffix. But in antiquity?


Whether Sakkiz was named such and kept its name from its Saka days are matters of conjecture. It is likely that the name originated with the Saka, but changed and then resurfaced at a later date for a reason altogether different. In the geographical work of the Greek historian Strabo (d. after 23 AD) no mention is made of Sakkiz per se, but reference is made (16.1.18) to a small country named Sagapeni, which was bound in the north by Media and Armenia, in the west by Adiabene and Mesopotamia and in the northwest by Babylon. The name [Sagapeni/Sakapeni] and the description of its geographical situation approximated the location of present-day Sakkiz.


Unlike Sakkiz, Sakastana is the most clearly identifiable of Saka place-names. This designation arose from the fact of Saka’s migration in large numbers into the greater Sistan region. By the time of the Greek itinerant Idirous of Charax Spasini (about late 1st century AD) the place was already called Sakastan, a toponym that would persist as long as the Saka enjoyed regional prominence. With the passing of Sakastan to Sasanian rule about 224 AD, the place-name changed to Sagastan. When the Sasanian ruler Bahram II (Varahran: ruled 276-293 AD) re-conquered the region, he appointed his son, the future Bahram III (ruled 293 AD) as governor and bestowed on him the title of Saganshah (king of the Saga/Saka]. Subsequently, the Arab conquest of Sagastan in 643-44 AD and re-conquest in 650-51 paved the way for the name change to Sajistan, Seijistan, Seistan and Sistan.


There is an anecdotal connection between Sakkiz and Sakastan and it comes from the meaning of the word “sakkiz” in Persian, terebinth. This small tree native to Northern Africa, Southern Europe and Western Asia is a source of turpentine and also is considered a common object of veneration. In Iran, it is most prominently obtained in the forests of Kordestan, particularly in Pusht Kuh, a mountainous region east of Kermanshah in Lor country. The etymological assumption has been that the word is of Turkic origin (see Dehkhoda, 29:545). This in turn raises the intriguing connection of the plant to Central Asia, the cradle of Turkic languages, and by this association with the Saka and Sakastan (Sistan), who were however geographically from Central Asia but linguistically Iranian-speaking.


In the English translation of Joseph Ferrier’s “Caravan Journeys and Wanderings in Persia, Afghanistan, Turkistan, and Baloochistan,” one reads of one Kazi Mohammad Hassan, a 19th century magistrate of Heart, why Sistan is called by that name. The name, Kazi Mohammad said, derived from the “word ‘saghis,’ the name of a wood much used in Persia for burning at this time.” The wood, Ferrier added, was found frequently in the steppes of Central Asia and grew “in much greater quantities near the Helmund and it is this that has given to the country in which it grows so abundantly the appellation Saghistan, the place of saghis.”


In an amusing comment, the English editor of Ferrier’s work, H.D. Seymour, expounded: “The Kazi had not heard of the Sakae and their migrations [into Drangiana=Sistan].” Neither Seymour nor the Kazi would have known for sure about the Saka’s presence in Sakkiz, because the discovery by Ghirshman that made the connection did not come around until the 1950s. Yet, somehow I get the feeling that the Kazi knew more than believed.


The preponderance of the Saka in Sakastan, naturally, would explain the origin and meaning of the place-name Sakavand (variation: Sagavand). In the 10th century Sistan, Sagavand referred to a town at the foot of a mountain of the same name, with a fortified wall and much agriculture. On the other hand, Abulfeda (d. 1331) wrote the name as Sakavand and placed it in the Bamiyan region of Zabolestan. Further Similarly, the place-name Sokavand referred to a fort and village near Ghazneh in the eastern part of present-day Afghanistan.


The connection between the Saka and the place-names Sakiz and Sakastan at two opposite ends of Iran suggests the likelihood of the existence of other Saka place names in the areas where the Saka are known to have inhabited. In the southeast Caspian region, the evidence of a Saka place-name appears in the name Asaak (variation: Asaac, Arsace, Arsacia), which was the early Parthian capital built by Arsaces in about 250 BC. The Orientalist W. Schoff, among others, identified the town as the present-day Quchan, located in the upper Atrak River valley eighty miles northwest of Mashad. The topography of Quchan is highly mountainous, with the nearby Hezarmasjid, Aladagh, and Shahjahan elevations ensuring wintry conditions that last for six months.




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