Professor Stephen Batiuk of the department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at U of T was part of a recent landmark intersection between archaeology and viticulture that uncovered where and when firmly held wine goblets were filled for the first time.

Dr. Batiuk’s dissertation work at U of T involved studying cultures originating from what are now Georgia and Armenia in the third and fourth millennia BC, or the Early Transcaucasian (ETC) period. His work consisted of shedding light on the heavy spread of ETC artifacts throughout the near east.

“Long story short, the real answer was that [during this period] migration played a significant role,” Batiuk states.

Batiuk gained an interest in the origins of wine after being exposed to the work of Dr. Pat McGovern, who is currently the scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

“I saw his map of the distribution of the wild variety of grapes in the near east, and I started to see a correlation,” Batiuk added, referring to the migration patterns of ETC people.

This initial connection became one of the driving forces in uncovering that the oldest instance of wine production possibly took place in the Gadachrilli Gora excavation site in Imiri, south of Georgia. This was a big part of a larger international project titled, “Research and Popularization of Georgian Grape and Wine Culture,” sponsored by the Department of Wine of the Ministry of Agriculture in Georgia.

The project is made up of an overwhelming number of multidisciplinary researchers, from local institutions such as the Georgian National Museum and Tbilisi State University, and internationally through members from Goddard Space Laboratory, the University of Copenhagen, the University of Pennsylvania, as well as agricultural and ancient ecology experts from Italy and France.

Before noticing the correlation between grape cultivation and migration patterns, Dr. Batiuk noticed that ETC pottery endured for periods of up to a thousand years in the near east without any changes in style. This is highly uncommon in archaeological records.

“These migrants brought with them a skill set… [at] the time that people in the Near East were starting to live in larger settlement… [with] greater levels of social stratification,” Batiuk explains, “The upper classes [were] looking for ways to attract and control the people below them.”

Dr. Batiuk described how alcohol in early societies was of heavier importance than today. It was used as payment, and a way of acquiring social status for its providers. However, wine, unlike beer, couldn’t be made at any time of the year. It required special skills to produce. This meant that even six thousand years ago, wine was still considered beer’s more glamourous cousin.

According to Batiuk, the value of these skills caused the newly migrant ETC people to seek and build their own untouchable niche. “[They] set up their vineyards on the outskirts of the settlement systems where the best lands for viticulture are… [allowing] them to preserve their culture for a longer time than had they moved right into the main settlements.”

Dr. Batiuk is currently acting as the Director of Excavations in an archaeological project in Tell Tayinat in southeastern Turkey, a site of heavy ETC occupation. The project is directed by Professor Tim Harrison also from the department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, and could potentially provide links to the greater wine project.

After these findings, Dr. Batiuk now wants to find more evidence of wine production in other sites. He is seeking to prove that the initial discovery is not “just a one-off” as he described it. The University of Copenhagen team is also hoping to map the genome of “the earliest grape” from grape seeds recovered from the excavation sites, allowing the comparison between neolithic grapes and our modern varieties.