Talking To: Wine archaeologist Patrick McGovern

Patrick McGovern is known as the “Indiana Jones of Ancient Ales, Wines, and Extreme Beverages.” He is Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Anthropology. 

Over the past two decades, Dr. McGovern has pioneered the exciting interdisciplinary field of Biomolecular Archaeology which is yielding whole new chapters concerning our human ancestry, medical practice, and of course what our ancient ancestors were eating and drinking.  His laboratory discovered the earliest chemically attested alcoholic beverage in the world (ca. 7000 B.C. from China), the earliest grape wine (ca. 5400 B.C.) and barley beer (ca. 3500 B.C.) from the Middle East, and the earliest chocolate from the Americas (ca. 1400 B.C.). He is the author of the seminal Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture

In June, he visited Lebanon for the first time in 30 years to help establish a wine museum in the Bekaa Valley. The project is a private sector initiative that seeks to consolidate and promote Lebanon’s undoubted wine heritage. He also found time to revisit many of Lebanon’s archaeological treasures. Dr. McGovern talks to Michael Karam, the author of Wines of Lebanon, who accompanied him during his recent visit.

There have a lot of myths and misconceptions about the role played by the ancient Phoenicians in the making and exporting of wine. How important really was ancient Lebanon in the history of wine?  

McGovern: Although modern scholars are understandably skeptical about the often contradictory and fantastic tales of classical writers, a recurring element running through many accounts has Dionysos, the Greek manifestation of the Near Eastern wine-god, voyaging from Phoenicia to Crete as a daring seafarer.  What could be a better metaphor for the Phoenician prowess in sailing the Mediterranean, and carrying not just the Near Eastern wine culture to Greece, Italy, Spain, and Carthage, but the western alphabet itself, the Royal Purple dye industry, and much more to other parts of the world. 

Long before the Phoenicians, the Canaanites and Natufians, as far back as 11,000 BP (Before Present), had probably already begun to make the ships that brought the wine culture to Egypt around 3000 B.C. We read in the 14th-13th century B.C. Ugaritic texts discovered at modern Ras Shamra (near Latakia) in Syria, part of Canaan, that “daylong they pour the wine...must-wine, fit for rulers.  Wine, sweet and abundant, select wine...the choice wine of Lebanon, must nurtured by El [the head of the pantheon].”  Later Greek writers, such as Theocritus and Archestratus of Syracuse, single out Bybline wine as “fine and fragrant,” the equal of the best Greek wine from Lesbos.  Aromaticity appears to have been its strong suit, if we are to believe Hosea (14.7) who lauds its scent. 

In the last 30 years, the planting of vines throughout the New World and the emergence of wine cultures there represents the lasting heritage and influence of the peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean.
You recently visited Lebanon for the first time in 30 years to discuss a possible role as a consultant to a proposed wine museum. What is the potential for such a project and, if done well, how important would it be in assembling the history of wine in the Levant? 

McGovern: Because of Lebanon and coastal Syria’s pivotal role in transmitting the wine culture possibly as an indigenous development or from regions farther north (Transcausasia, Azerbaijan, or eastern Turkey) to other parts of the Near East and Mediterranean, such a wine museum should put the Levant on the ancient and modern wine map like never before.  It will become an impetus for further archaeological and DNA research, provide a direct connection between past and present (with the excellent wines now being produced in the Bekaa and elsewhere in Lebanon), reveal the crucial role of the Levant in laying the foundations for western culture (in contrast to current negative perceptions), and serve as a magnet for tourists.

You visited Baalbek for the first time in June and were able to take a proper look at the temple of Bacchus. Why are you now convinced that it is a major landmark in understanding the role wine played in ancient civilizations?    

McGovern:The temple of Bacchus is probably the best preserved structure of its kind in the Roman Empire. Quite appropriately, it was erected under the aegis of Antoninus Pius, who hailed from the Phoenician (Punic) colony of Carthage in North Africa.  The temple astounds the visitor by its extraordinary state of preservation, with Corinthian columns 19 meters tall and its richly adorned decoration of entwined grape motifs and reliefs that recount the birth and life of Bacchus.  It is set within the lush vineyards of the modern Bekaa, the principal wine-producing center of Lebanon today and likely in antiquity.

You have said that you like to do some DNA tests on indigenous Lebanese grapes. What would you be looking for in particular?  

McGovern: If we are ever to recover the true Bybline grape and its relatives, the approximately 40 purported indigenous cultivars growing in modern Lebanon will need to be “genetically fingerprinted” as part of our more widespread “Ancient DNA Grape Project.”  So far, Lebanon has not been thoroughly surveyed for its ancient grape germ plasm.  It is reported that wild vines survive today only along the coast of Lebanon.  It is not beyond the realm of possibility that these vines are the descendants of those first taken in cultivation and domesticated as Vitis vinifera vinifera, the Eurasian grape which provides 99% of the world’s wines (including Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and some 10,000 cultivars world-wide).

There is a theory that the Chardonnay and the Semillon grapes were imported into France by returning crusaders. True or false?    

McGovern: Some have argued that the original Bybline vine, now called Merweh, is related to the French Semillon, and that the Obedieh vine was carried back to Europe by the Crusaders where it became known as the Chardonnay. Recent DNA analyses, showing that Chardonnay is the result of a cross of native French Pinot with eastern European Gouais blanc, disprove the latter assertion, but it is still possible that a Lebanese varietal contributed to the genetic heritage of Gouais blanc and/or Semillon.

When you visited the little-known Temple of Eshmoun in Saida you sat on the throne of Astarte? (above) On a scale of one to ten how much of a thrill was that and why?  

McGovern: Sitting on the throne of Astarte at the healing pool of the Temple of Eshmoun would rate a 10.  Here was a site only 15 kilometers or so from another Phoenician site, Sarafand (ancient Sarepta), where I excavated in 1974, but had never visited.  We can imagine the sanctity of this site being intertwined with water, wine, and the healing power of herbs administered in the water and wine.  Since my biomolecular archaeological research has recently shown that wine was the main way of dispensing medicine in the ancient world, it was as if the throne epitomized the past and future course of my investigations.

When you were last here you watched Israeli Phantoms jets bomb the Palestinian camps outside Saida as you worked on your dig in Sarepta? How much has changed since you were last in Lebanon?  

McGovern: I was very surprised by the changes wrought by the war.  In 1971, my wife and I had stayed in an atmospheric hotel on Martyrs Square.  Now the area is completely gone–like some vast wasteland, taking memories with it.  Yet, the ravages of war opened the way to discovering more about Beirut’s Canaanite and Phoenician past.  Dr. Leila Badre, with whom I had worked 35 years previously at Sarepta, and who is today the director of the Archaeological Museum at AUB, showed me what had been found: a Middle Bronze gateway and city wall upon city wall covering millennia. 

Seeing the many new high rises crowded together all along the coast was also a big shock.  We went looking for the Sarepta mound, and couldn’t find it!  One wonders how many other irreplaceable archaeological sites have been eaten up by the war and the uncontrolled development.

Your latest book Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages tells “the compelling story of humanity's ingenious, intoxicating quest for the perfect drink”. Which country has the most fascinating drink story to tell and why? 

McGovern: Human innovation in discovering plants (grapes, cereals like rice, corn and sorghum, roots and sugary rich stems, etc.) and other botanically derived products (such as honey and tree resins) to ferment into alcoholic beverages is prominently on display in nearly every country that humans have explored, ever since we came “out of Africa” some 100,000 years ago and spread around the planet.  After all, our ancestors had much the same sensory organs as we do, and they would have known what they liked. 

Hence, the mind-altering effects of a fermented beverage, as well as the seemingly miraculous process of fermentation (in which carbon dioxide roils the surface of liquid), provided powerful incentives for why fermented beverages came to dominate entire economies, religions, and societies over time.  So, it’s difficult to pick out just one country with the perfect drink, but Lebanon is clearly in the vanguard and responsible for introducing most of the human race to the delights of grape wine.  The Bacchic poets of the Middle Ages would certainly agree!

Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages by Dr Patrick E. McGovern (Berkeley: University of California) will appear on September 1.