Last year I had the pleasure of visiting the Areni-1 cave in southern Armenia. Many unique and noteworthy artifacts have been found in the cave, including leather shoes; fine linen fabric, woven reed mats, and pottery vessels of different styles and periods. In addition, preserved within the cave is also the site of the world’s oldest known winery. When the archaeologists studying the site announced this in 2012, I knew I just had to see it for myself.
The cave is situated overlooking a winding road that slips through a valley along the edge of the Arpa River. Small cafes and vendors dot the roadside. We pulled into one of the cafes that had grapevine canopies over tables that straddled side branches of the river. I thought we were just stopping for lunch, but when I looked up, we were also right at the base of the cliff where the Areni-1 cave was located.
The earthen path to the cave was well worn, but very steep and without steps or rail, so it was a bit of a trudge get to the mouth of the cave. It was also a hot, late spring day, and the sun, although welcome after several days of clouds and showers, beat down on us as we climbed. As we neared the mouth of the cave, a dog ran by us at breakneck speed, making me wish for a few less years on my own personal pedometer.
The view into the valley from the cave mouth is spectacular. The hills across the access road are low and one can see for many miles to the north. Presuming a similar lay of the land in the recent past, the cave would have provided excellent protection for occupants and as well as the ability to see animals or people headed their way at a distance. It was the ultimate early room with a view.
Just to the left of the cave mouth is the main occupation area. Although the cave was inhabited on and off from the Neolithic to the late Middles Ages, the bulk of the habitation was in the Chalcolithic or Copper Age in the late 5th to early 4th millennium BCE. This area has yielded hearths, grindstones, clay storage bins, and numerous goat and sheep bones (mostly goat). In addition to their provenance, the bones themselves show signs of processing for harvesting meat and marrow as well as cooking, indicating that cave occupants were eating animals on site and probably living in proximity to them as well. Areni’s famous leather shoes were found in this area. Also found here were obsidian and chert tools. The obsidian is interesting because there are no deposits of it in the Arpa valley within 20 kilometers of the cave, indicating that cave inhabitants were either getting it themselves at a greater distance, or trading with others who had ready access to the material.
When I was in college I worked for a summer at the Tautavel caves in southern France. The material used for some of the tools at that Neanderthal site came from several hundred miles away. So trade at a distance for Areni’s much more modern inhabitants is no surprise. It is important to remember, however, when considering the flow of information, such as that concerning the domestication of plants or ways of processing them for food and drink, or for the ability to trade wine, say for obsidian, perhaps?
Although the cave has electricity, the day we visited, it was out. In fact, we were told it was on before our climb, but it seemed to fail especially for our visit. I don’t know how many of you are spelunkers, but as you enter a cave, the light falls off rapidly. Just a handful of feet inside the mouth of the cave and we were in near darkness that became pitch as we made our way deeper inside. Someone had a half-dead flashlight with them, and that was the only light we had to guide us. The photos in this post are a credit to my trusty Nikon and its ability capture and amplify light, because it was impossible to see a few inches beyond the weak torchlight with the unaided eye.
To the left, in the darkness of the cave, was the main wine processing area. This area has a shallow clay tub, the center of which is occupied by the mouth of a large jar. Archaeologists think that this basin was for the pressing of grapes or berries, and that the pressed juice flowed into the mouth of the large jar. This interpretation is bolstered by the discovery of desiccated grapes, grape seeds and skins still attached to pedicels, and even grape stems in close proximity to these jars. Morphological examination of the Copper-Age grape remains found here suggest that they are an intermediary between wild and domestic fruits, so it is possible that grape domestication was in process at Areni-1. The presence of large storage jars around the pressing installation may even indicate that secondary fermentation took place there. Plastering of jar mouths would have created an airlock, protecting the wine from oxidation. Carbon-14 dating of the grapes in this area places them between 4223 – 3790 BCE, making this the oldest wine-producing assemblage yet discovered. There are older jars with sediments that have been identified as wine known from Georgia and Iran, which indicates the consumption of wine in those places, but Armenia has the claim as oldest site for wine making.
In addition to grapes, the remains of many other fruits, drupes, and nuts were found in the cave, including plums, pears, hackberries, silverberries, almonds and walnuts. These could have been for consumption as food items, or some of them (notably plums and pears) could have been used in the production of mixed-fruit wines. The presence of the walnuts are also notable because there is very little data on when humans started to domesticate (purposely plant and harvest nuts) from these trees. Areni-1 offers remains and a firm range of dates when inhabitants were eating these in the Caucasus. Charred grains such as emmer, early wheat (Triticum cf. aestivum), naked and hulled barley, lentils, and grass peas were also found in the cave.
We trudged on slowly towards the rear of the cave, feeling more than seeing our way forward towards an area where the skulls of three sub-adult human skulls were found sealed into large pottery jars. One of the skulls had well preserved brain tissue within. Also around this area, several adult leg and arm bones with evidence of carnivore chewing (probably a dog) were also found. All of the human remains predate the winemaking by several hundred years. Beyond the fact that their heads were severed from their bodies, archaeologists do not know how to interpret these remains. They are being called, “burials,” but it is not clear whether these tweens and teens were sacrificed, or whether they died from natural causes and their heads interred in ritual remembrance. The largest skull has evidence of new bone formation on the inside of the skull, but no evidence of fracture or deliberate penetration into the cranial cavity. This suggests an inflammatory response to an infection as can occur in the encephalidities, meningitis, and osteomyelitis. However, because the adult long bones were chewed by a dog, and some of them were found sealed in pots, I suspect that these kids may have been victims of rabies. We know that rabies was a problem in the Old Babylonian Period of ancient Mesopotamia because they had spells to try to counteract it Although Areni-1 is much older than the earliest known evidence of rabies in Mesopotamia, It is not too far flung to imagine that these kids died after an infectious bite from a rabid animal. Whatever the cause of death, my money is on ritual remembrance of these children, not sacrifice or ritual cannibalism as some have suggested.
As we made our way out of the cave, the return of the light felt like emerging from the world of the past represented in the artifacts and assemblages. I imagined the sounds of people chatting while they worked, animals bleating, some meat cooking on the hearth, and people making and tasting the old Areni-1 vintages. Imagination is a powerful thing, because not two minutes by Jeep from the base of the cave is the Areni Wine Factory. Despite its Soviet-sounding name, the wines they make are good and the people who make it are knowledgeable about their wines and wine culture beyond their borders. That day, they were tasting some mixed fruit wines. I sampled the grape-cherry and grape pomegranate both of which were very good. A quick tour of the cellar ended the day and we got back in the Jeep to find some beds for the night. As we drove, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the coincidence of modern winery so near to the world’s oldest known winery, and wondered how similar (or how different) the people of the Arap Valley are to those who lived in Areni-1.
(Words and photographs by Laura Kelley. Recording of rabies Incantation borrowed from the London SOAS website).