no, no it isn’t noah’s winery: how the media screw up archaeology to sell copies

From BAR: Discovery of the earliest known wine-making operation in an Armenian cave near the southern border with Iran. Courtesy Gregory Areshian.

There was no worldwide flood. The human genome does not bottleneck at Noah. And while a legitimate archaeological expedition may have found evidence of wine production in the Areni-1 cave complex, located near the village of Areni in the Vayots Dzor province of Armenia (map), it certainly is not evidence of “Noah’s winery.”

Unfortunately, most people outside of the archaeological field won’t pay much attention to a respected archaeologist like UCLA’s Dr. Hans Barnard arguing for “Chemical Evidence for Wine Production Around 4000 B.C.E. in the Late Chalcolithic Near Eastern Highlands,” in a respected, peer-reviewed journal like the Journal of Archaeological Science (Volume 38, Issue 5, May 2011, Pages 977-984). It is also important to point out that at no time in the stellar article are “Noah” or a “flood” ever mentioned. In fact, the article’s conclusion is rather methodologically compelling to archaeologists:

With an improved method to determine the presence of malvidin we obtained positive results, indicating the possible former presence of grape products, for two Late Chalcolithic (around 4000 BCE) potsherds found in the cave complex Areni-1 in present-day Armenia. It is important to note again that the presence of malvidin, the anthocyanin that gives pomegranates, grapes and wine their red color, is not necessarily associated with the former presence of wine, but only indicates the remains of grapes, pomegranates, or both. Fermentation, although likely, can only be assumed and other products (such as defrutum) should not be excluded. The fact that in Armenia the ceramic samples were collected from a context resembling a grape pressing installation with the preserved remains (seeds, stems, skins) of crushed or pressed grapes supports the interpretation that this part of the cave was a site where wine was produced. Another potsherd from Late Akkadian (around 2200 BCE) deposits in an elite context in Tell Mozan in Syria preserved a red interior, initially interpreted as the remnants of red wine, but proved negative for malvidin. Our research thus produced an improved method to identify malvidin in archaeological materials that can, however, only provide supplementary arguments for or against the presence of wine in specific vessels. Like any other scientific technique, biochemical research alone can never create conclusive evidence concerning anthropological issues (Barnard et al., 2007), much like archaeological research alone cannot irrefutably prove wine production. Instead, both should be part of a larger research program, aimed at addressing a specific anthropological or archaeological research question (McGovern, 1995). As the interests, sample materials and experience of analytical chemists and other scientists will always be different from those of archaeologists, a substantial amount of method development should be expected before a viable protocol will be available. We hope to have illustrated this and to have at the same time added to the discussion regarding the presence or absence of wine in the archaeological record. (html of pdf)

That is, there may be evidence for wine making (or at least storage vessels for grape products) in present day Armenia from around 4000 BCE. That is fascinating research brought about by a well-detailed methodology that suggests, “a better chemical indicator for the former presence of red wine is malvidin, the anthocyanin that gives grapes and wines their red color.” This research adds evidence to previous research which concludes that wine making in the Near East may be much older than we previously thought, and we have improved means by which to detect it.

This is excellent archaeology!

Unfortunately, many newspapers and magazines can’t sell copies reporting on improved techniques for indicating the former presence of red wine. So, they take the credible research and attempt to use it to supply evidence for an incredible claim: that the biblical Noah existed and that we can know this because an archaeologist found evidence of ‘his’ winery. Never mind that no such claim was ever made by the researcher. Just mentioning the possibility of Noah and merely asking the question about his biblical winery (Gen. 9:20) will get your story certain media attention and thereby allow the publisher to sell a far greater number of copies than he/she would had Noah’s name not been invoked. And, because publishers can then use this unverifiable, sensational suggestion to sell said newspapers and magazine copies to folks who will actually spend cash on such a speculation, “Is this Noah’s winery?” translates into cash for publishers.

It’s a technique that has been used for decades to make money: use sound archaeology to make unintended, ridiculous claims, and sell it to the public, which wants to believe it and reinforce their preexisting beliefs. It is an example of good archaeology being used by money-hungry publishers to create bad science in the name of faith, and it’s wrong.

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