Ancient Canaanites at Megiddo Raised a Glass to the Dead

Analysis of 3,500-year-old pottery found in tombs at the site of Armageddon reveals the Canaanites made wine offerings for their dearly departed – even for newborns

Ariel David

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Fig 8Middle Bronze Age tomb in Megiddo’s “Area K,” a residential neighborhoodCredit: Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition

From wine to opium, it looks like the ancient Canaanites knew how to throw a party – especially when the shindig involved seeing off their dearly departed on a journey into the afterlife.

A chemical study of Bronze Age ceramic vessels found in tombs at Megiddo – an ancient city in northern Israel also known as Armageddon – has turned up compounds compatible with wine, suggesting the drink played an important role in the funerary rites of the site’s inhabitants.

The study, published this month in the journal Archaeometry, adds to recent research from a different site in Israel which showed the presence of opium in grave offerings, offering rare insight into the culture and belief system of the ancient inhabitants of Canaan – long before the Israelites became a thing or the Bible was written.

Fig 1Aerial image of Megiddo highlighting the two areas from which pottery vessels were sampled for residue analysisCredit: Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition

Armageddon is the place where Christian tradition foresees the final battle between good and evil will take place at the end of time. Its name is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew Har Megiddo – the Mount of Megiddo. The site is in fact not a mountain, but a “tell:” an accumulation of human settlements built over each other starting in the Early Bronze Age, more than 5,000 years ago.

Before it became a stronghold of the Kingdom of Israel in the Iron Age (12th to 6th centuries B.C.E.) and then the focus of biblical apocalyptic prophecies, Megiddo was a bustling Canaanite city state in the fertile Jezreel Valley and a hub of international trade for goods from far-flung lands.

The newly published research, by archaeologist Ayala Amir and colleagues, focuses on the residue analysis of thirty jugs, jars and other vessels found in two spots of Megiddo, an elite monumental tomb near the city’s palace and burials dug under the floors of homes and workshops in a lower class neighborhood. Both areas date to the late Middle Bronze Age, from 1750 to 1550 B.C.E.

Fig 5Pottery vessels in the elite monumental Middle Bronze Age tomb in “Area H” at MegiddoCredit: Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition

Residue analysis is a relatively new tool in archaeology that involves grinding samples from pottery vessels into a fine powder and then feeding it into a gas chromatographer and mass spectrometer to reveal substances that seeped into the porous ceramic structure of the containers when they were in use long ago. Researchers take pains to make sure the vessels have not been contaminated by grubby modern hands, and in recent years, this method has revealed much about the dietary habits, trade links and cultural mores of long-lost civilizations.

For example, a 2018 study of other vessels from the same monumental tomb at Megiddo turned up evidence of what could be the earliest known use of vanilla as an aromatic spice.

In the new study, about half of the vessels sampled contained tartaric acid and multiple other compounds that usually appear together only in wine, Amir and colleagues report.

Previous residue analysis of storage jars from a Middle Bronze Age palatial complex at Tel Kabri, a site north of Megiddo, had already shown that Canaanite rulers indulged in wine, but this is the first time the drink is identified in Canaanite funerary contexts, and across different social classes, Amir says.

Fig 3Middle Bronze Age skeleton buried in a large jar with wine jars next to it in Megiddo’s “Area K,” a residential neighborhoodCredit: Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition

Wine for the souls?

We don’t know exactly what role alcohol played in the burial rites of the Canaanites, and whether it was drunk by mourners at the funeral, or at subsequent commemoration ceremonies, or whether it was meant as a libation to the gods or a supply of drink for the deceased in the afterlife. The latter scenario seems a bit more likely, says Amir, a PhD candidate at Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot.

For one thing, the wine vessels were often found close to the head and mouth of the dead, as if to facilitate drinking by the permanent resident of the tomb, the archaeologist says. Secondly, we already knew that the ancient Egyptians buried their dead with wine, food and other supplies, believing they would need them in the afterlife. And during the Middle Bronze Age Egyptian and Canaanite cultures strongly influenced each other through trade and migration (the pharaohs would ultimately rule the region directly in the Late Bronze Age after defeating a coalition of local kings in the battle of Megiddo in the mid 15th century B.C.E.). So it is plausible that the Canaanites held similar beliefs as the Egyptians on the need to provide sustenance for the dead.

Whatever ritual purpose it served, the funerary use of wine clearly cut across classes, although the elite burial contained large storage jars of the stuff, while the simpler tombs dug under the residential quarter housed mostly small jugs and drinking cups. Again, we don’t know if this was because the wine was drunk by mourners – and therefore more of it was needed at the funerals of important people – or simply because the rich and powerful could afford to leave larger offerings for the deceased, the researchers say.

Fig 6Pottery vessels in the elite monumental Middle Bronze Age tomb in “Area H” at MegiddoCredit: Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition

Tipple for baby

Interestingly, a drinking bowl that once contained wine was also found in the burial of a newborn in the residential neighborhood. While it was not uncommon in ancient times for children to drink alcoholic beverages (often safer than polluted water), a baby this young likely would have not consumed any of it. If the wine was intended to be drunk by the deceased, this may indicate that the Canaanites believed in an afterlife in which the souls of dead children continued to grow into adulthood or, alternatively, existed in a sort of ageless state, Amir tells Haaretz.

As mentioned, a previous residue analysis, published last year, of vessels from a Canaanite necropolis at Tel Yehud, in central Israel, showed that in the Late Bronze Age, a few centuries after the time of the wine juglets of Megiddo, the locals used opium, probably imported from Cyprus, as part of their funerary rites.

We don’t know if the switch in the drug of choice was due to the different location or the time period (or both), but at least these studies offer us a glimpse, albeit an incomplete one, into the lives of the people closely related to the Israelite culture that would develop in the Levant a few centuries later.

Fig 2Middle Bronze Age tomb in Megiddo’s “Area K,” a residential neighborhoodCredit: Courtesy of the Megiddo Expedition

Ancient hieroglyphic and cuneiform inscriptions tell us comparatively a lot about the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations. But even though scholars credit Canaanites with inventing alphabetic writing in the form we still use today (probably somewhere in the Sinai desert nearly 4,000 years ago) their surviving inscriptions are usually brief and far between.

Most of the historical sources on the Canaanites come from contemporary Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts or from the highly pejorative portrayal of this population in the Bible, which was written centuries after the Bronze Age ended. In fact, we don’t even know if the Canaanites saw themselves as a single people of that name or as distinct groups with different identities.

“The northern Levant [Syria and Mesopotamia] and Egypt have so many texts: inscriptions, tablets, papyri, while Canaan is very dull from this aspect,” Amir says. “We don’t have so much information and residue analysis can provide us with some new insights on these people and give us a peek into the customs and practices that were held in Canaan in this period.”