Wine in Ancient Egypt

Many people think that wine must have originated in Ancient Greece or Imperial Rome. In fact, winemaking actually predates the Greeks by at least 4 000 years.
A new study looked at Egyptian winemaking and preservation between the predynastic (3800-3300 BCE) and New Kingdom (1539-1075 BCE) periods[1].

The study also drew upon an unusual kind of ancient text. During its New Kingdom period, Egypt manufactured amphorae (60-cm ceramic bottles, with handles) to contain wine. The containers were inscribed in hieratic script, an everyday, cursive form of hieroglyphs. The inscriptions served the same function as today’s wine bottle labels, and helped in the selection of a good wine. The inscriptions included type of product, year of vintage, quality and sweetness, geographical origin, type of ownership (royal, temple or private), and the winemakers’ details. Analysis of the inscriptions, combined with separate analysis of the jars’ ceramics, will help trace the diffusion of winemaking techniques to Europe.

The project’s preliminary literature review of archaeological evidence reveals considerable information about the role of wine (shedeh) in Ancient Egypt. Tomb-wall paintings are one of several sources of information as they often depict grape harvesting, winemaking and religious ceremonies.

"Egyptians saw a connection between wine’s red colour and the blood of Osiris, god of the underworld and afterlife," says project lead researcher, Dr Maria Rosa Guasch-Jané. "Therefore, grapes and wine in Egyptian culture symbolised revitalisation and rebirth."

Egypt had a very organised system of wine production. Yet, the product was seen as a luxury, suitable for religious ceremonies. Pharaohs and priests used it for temple offerings. Large wine jars displaying the royal seal found in tombs from the Predynastic period (ca. 3800 BCE) at Abydos and Saqqara were interpreted to mean that the wine was meant for the deceased in the afterworld. From the Early dynastic period (ca. 2950 BCE), wine was also consumed during funeral ceremonies. Royalty and the nobility also enjoyed wine at banquets and during festivals.

It seems that Egyptian use of wine ended with the dynastic period around 343 BCE. The Greeks probably picked up Egyptian winemaking traditions during their rule of Egypt from 305 BCE.

The team created a website, ‘Wine of Ancient Egypt’, that elaborates on all aspects of wine in Egyptian life. The site includes an interactive archaeological map of Egypt, showing wine-related scenes from tombs.

[1] Guasch-Jané et al: ‘Irep en Kemet’ Wine of Ancient Egypt: Documenting the Viticulture and Winemaking Scenes in the Egyptian Tombs in Annals of the Photogrammetry, Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Sciences - 2013

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