WINE HAS BEEN big business for much longer than you might think. Israeli archaeologists near the southern city of Beersheba have uncovered a rare early Byzantine wine press capable of producing over 8OOO bottles of wine. Development work in the Ramat Negev settlement led to workers uncovering part of an ancient structure. As all archaeological sites are protected in Israel the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) was called. The team soon discovered that the structure was in fact a wine press of considerable size and dating to about the 4th century AD (the beginning of the Byzantine era) and one of the earliest yet discovered in Israel. Only one other press of this type has been found before in the Negev. The pit into which the runoff juice was collected is two meters deep with a diameter of 2.5 meters meaning it could hold 65OO liters of wine, the equivalent of more than 86OO 75Oml bottles. The scale of the production suggests that the press was probably connected to a local Roman army unit and supplied their wine ration or that the winery was producing a lot of wine for export. Negev was a major agricultural region at this time and was an important viticultural area with its wines exported throughout the Byzantine Empire. That the press is located along an ancient trade route (for incense and spices) only adds to the possibility that this was a large-scale commercial operation. Winemaking in the area went into decline in around the 6th century AD when it’s likely that the winepress fell into disuse after a plague swept the area. The news comes after the apparent recent discovery of an even older viticultural site further north in the Jezreel Valley, where an archaeologist found evidence of a vineyard and winepress that is likely to be 1OOO years older than even the Byzantine site.