A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
In 1988, the tomb of one of Egypt's first kings, who lived about 3150 B.C. and was probably named Scorpion I, was excavated at Abydos on the middle Nile. Hundreds of jars, which proved to have contained wine, were recovered. Several preserved grapes were found, and 47 of the jars contained grape pips, morphologically most similar to a domesticated subspecies, Vitis vinifera vinifera.
Chemical tests of crusty residues from the jars, performed by the Archaeological Chemistry Laboratory of the University of Pennsylvania Museum's Applied Science Center for Archaeology (MASCA), confirmed the excavators' suspicion that they had contained wine. Diffuse-reflectance Fourier-transform infrared spectrometry identified tartaric acid, which occurs naturally in large amounts only in grapes; this result was confirmed by a chemical test. High-performance liquid chromatography suggested the presence of aromatic hydrocarbons derived from the resin of the terebinth tree. This was the most definitive evidence that the jars had originally contained wine, for terebinth resin was added to wine in antiquity to prevent it from turning to vinegar.
The jars themselves held the answer to where the wine came from. The best typological parallels are found at various sites in Palestine. Neutron activation analysis of clay from 11 of the jars pointed to the same region of Palestine. The seals associated with the jars, however, were made of Nile alluvial clay, suggesting that before the jars were deposited in the tomb, a final stoppering and sealing process took place in Egypt.
Patrick A. Mcgovern is a senior research scientist in the Museum Applied Center for Archaeology of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and an adjunct associate professor of anthropology.