No sour grapes

1,500 years ago residents of Shivta used intensive runoff agriculture and harvested dew to irrigate their vineyards.

Shivta fermentation vat 521 (photo credit: Deborah Rubin Fields)
Shivta fermentation vat 521
(photo credit: Deborah Rubin Fields)
Here’s a riddle: What do you find in a place that has no natural springs, no wells, an average yearly rainfall of only 100 mm. and an altitude of just 350 meters? More than likely, you’d say “nothing.” But the truth is that in ancient times a wine industry flourished under these conditions.
Surprisingly, calculations show that in the Nabatean/Byzantine village of Shivta (or Subeita), winepresses produced about two million liters. Now that’s no sour grapes.
Shivta is in the Negev, 55 km. southwest of Beersheba.
Its location is frankly in the middle of nowhere.
What’s even more amazing, however, is that archeologists suspect that this was also the case in Shivta’s heyday, some 1,500 years ago. So how did wine growers of the fifth and sixth centuries CE succeed under such adverse business conditions? Unbelievable as it may seem, farmers in these parched surroundings grew several different types of fruit. In fact, they developed a complex but profitable farming system called intensive runoff agriculture.
Simply put, they captured the water from sudden, intense rain showers. “Simply put,” however, does not mean simply built or maintained.
Consequently, the farmers had to manually construct a method for collecting the rainfall before it seeped into the often bone-dry earth. Remember, this was in the days before there were trench digging machines, bulldozers, trucks, etc. Thus, these ancient growers (1) back-wrenchingly removed the stones lying on the surface of Shivta’s hills, (2) carefully dug spaced ditches along the slopes, (3) constructed terraced plots along the wadi banks, and (4) optimized the growers’ plots by allocating large water catchment areas.
Moreover, according to Dr. Moti Hyman, who specializes in agricultural archeology, particularly in the Negev area, the ancient growers stacked stones in cone-like fashion around the vines.
Overnight, dew would collect on the stones. They then funneled the accumulated dew down to the plants. Hyman reports that in ancient Israel this method was used throughout the Negev. Astonishingly, some Beduin farmers still employ this method (known as tuleilat el anab, the Arabic term roughly means “grape mound”) and Tal-Ya Technologies, a new Israeli water technology company, markets sustainable agriculture products based on this ancient system.
But that was not all farmers did to increase their yield. Archeologist Dr.
Yizhar Hirschfeld of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem theorized that the farmers ingeniously enriched the soil in which the vines grew. Under the heading of waste-not-want-not, Shivta farmers raised thousands of pigeons. They ate the pigeons and yearly spread 15 tons of their droppings as ready fertilizer.
TWO INTACT winepresses are still visible at Shivta, one at the northern end and one at the western end.
The northern winepress stands in close proximity to the northern church. It differs from the western winepress in two significant ways: It does not have an area for storing baskets of grapes and it has only one wine tank. Conjecture is that the Byzantine monks affiliated with the northern church/monastery farmed communally. Hence, they would not have had a need to separately store and process their grapes.
At the western winepress, the entire process of ancient wine making is laid out. For example, visitors may observe where growers stored their grapes until they were ready to begin crushing them. Cost-effectively, the growers built the walls of the storage units in a way that separates and traps any leaking grape juice.
Adjacent and below the roomy storage area were both the 30 square meter treading zones and the vats used in the initial fermentation. The paved treading floor has openings where the must flowed through a channel into two lower holding tanks or vats.
Interestingly, each of these vats has a deep impression.
This caught the skins and seeds that would separate and eventually sink to the bottom of the container.
Shivta wine producers built impressive thick stone towers for second fermentation and/or storage. The towers stood in close proximity to the presses. They guaranteed that the wine would sit in a dark, consistently cold environment. Towers discovered in nearby Nahal Lavan had plastering on the outside. Thus, Shivta farmers must have had some yet-to-be-discovered method for releasing built-up carbon dioxide.
Dr. Ruti Erez Edelson’s research suggests that three categories of wine were produced at Shivta: two for export and one for local consumption. Of the export quality wines, one was designated for rich connoisseurs – even in ancient times, people had a taste for and money to spend on fine wine. The second export type was probably of good quality, but not for wine collectors. Most likely, camels carried the wine to the ports of Ashkelon and Gaza. From there, they were shipped to all the countries along the Mediterranean.
Erez Edelson contends that Shivta residents understood that if the town was to survive, it could not depend on grain as a cash crop. Given climatic conditions and the level to which agriculture had developed, grain farming supported less than half of the estimated 2,800 people living in the area. So Shivta desperately needed a high value crop – not just for its own consumption, but for trading purposes. The income from such marketable produce would then buy supplies necessary for the maintenance of the community.
Wine fit the bill.
If you are still wondering whether this system really could have produced wine, the answer appears to be affirmative.
In the 1950s, Michael Even-Ari, professor of botany at the Hebrew University, planted according to the methods used in ancient Shivta. He succeeded in harvesting grapes, figs, pomegranates and carob.