Maltese Wine Pressing in Antiquity

Maltese Wine Pressing in Antiquity

Maltese Wine Pressing in Antiquity

Prof. Anthony Bonanno

University of Malta

The focus of attention of this article is on a series of strange rock-cut features that mark some areas of the Maltese, predominantly Gozitan, rocky landscape. Like the notorious Maltese cart-ruts they are hewn on the surface of the bedrock and, for that reason, they do not present intrinsic stratigraphical indicators for their dating.

My first encounter with this facet of Maltese archaeology goes back to a photograph of a system of connected basins then visible on the rock surface somewhere in Wardija.

He claimed that people referred to it as a “magna tal-gobon” (“cheese-making machine”). I never managed to see this particular feature in real life after that episode and I cannot tell whether it still exists.

The basic concept of each feature is that of two rock-cut basins, one at a slightly higher level than the other, to which it is connected by means of a hole at its bottom. The upper basin is always square or rectangular in shape while the lower tends to be circular, smaller and deeper. They are often accompanied by much smaller bowl-like receptacles hewn in the rock on the side, connected with either the upper or, in one case, the lower basin.

What is strange is that these enigmatic basins somehow escaped the attention of antiquarian writers from Gian Francesco Abela (first half of the 17th century) to Antonio Annetto Caruana (second half of the 19th century). They even escaped the notice of Themistokles Zammit and other archaeologists and antiquarians of the 20th century.

Distribution in Malta

As already inferred above, the major concentration of these strange rock-cut features is in an area to the south of Xewkija, on both sides of the Mgarr ix-Xini canyon. Jaccarini and Cauchi identified and published the best six representatives, but noted three more rudimentary ones. One cannot fail to mention that the presence of at least two separate Roman villas in the area south of Xewkija can be inferred from the discovery of two stone basins of trapeta (olive crushers). Whether there was ever a connection between the two categories of features, or not, needs to be established.
Another Gozitan example, this time at Dwejra, was mentioned in the same Melita Historica 1999 article, but was published in greater detail in another article in 2000.
The fine specimen within the Misqa Tanks complex (between the Tal-Maghlaq catacombs and Mnajdra) is also illustrated in the 1999 article, but still awaits a proper study. Its presence among the ‘prehistoric’ Misqa tanks does not imply contemporaneity with them, and it could have been inserted at a later stage. The Tal-Maghlaq catacombs, some 100m away, suggest the presence of an ancient (probably late Roman) rural settlement in the vicinity.

It is only in July of 2008 that, by pure chance, I came to know of two separate groups of similar rock-cut systems, one in the area of It-Tafal ta’ Bingemma (described in some detail in Appendix 1) and another one in the Ta’ Lippija area (described in Appendix 2).

The group of It-Tafal ta’ Bingemma consists of three such devices. One was carved on a huge detached boulder which seems to have rolled over on its side since then because the horizontal floor of the larger basin is now tilted on a steep angle. The other two were cut out on the edge of the terraced rock contour at a slightly higher altitude. While one was carved on the upper surface of a projecting ledge and overlooks the fields below, the other was cut almost at the foot of a terrace so that part of it is now covered by the soil of the field below. Both systems have a feature which seems to be absent from the other Maltese specimens I have come across so far, but which occurs on many abroad, namely, a large, somewhat deep hole on the vertical rock wall behind the upper basin.

A single set of rock-cut basins near the La Ferla Cross was brought to my attention by Professor Joe Falzon (Fig. 2).

This was the situation till 2007. In that year a series of developments suggested a re-examination of the evidence for the purpose of these features. The first eye-opener came by way of a copy of a book kindly donated to me by Dott. Santino Pascuzzi early in that year. The book, authored by Orlando Sculli, is a very scholarly study of very similar rock-cut basin systems scattered all over the hilly countryside of Ferruzzano, a small paese in the Locri province of Calabria. Apart from a detailed illustrated catalogue of the most representative examples, the book describes the various components of these systems and illustrates graphically how they work (Fig. 5). The author proves beyond any shadow of doubt that they were palmenti (i.e. wine presses) because some of them were still in use for that purpose up to the 1950s. In his detailed discussion of their dating he makes some examples date to the ancient Greek age, and the majority to the Roman period. Some were undoubtedly still in use in the Byzantine age when typical Byzantine crosses were engraved on them. As the Gozitan examples were very similar to the Ferruzzano ones, their interpretation as winepresses suddenly appeared the most probable one.

In Easter 2007 this was followed by an archaeological tour of Bulgaria where two rock-cut features like the Ferruzzano ones were encountered and photographed on either side of Perperikon, an impressive sanctuary, partly rock-carved and partly built on the sides and top of a steep rocky hill in the Rhodope mountains (Fig. 3). According to the local tradition the sanctuary had its origins in Thracian prehistory and the two features were none other than wine-presses connected with the Greek god of wine drinking and revelling, Dionysus, who was supposed to have hailed from Thrace. The type of rock in which the presses were carved was a very friable sand stone, similar to the Ferruzzano one, and the features manifested an advanced state of erosion. The idea of wine pressing, therefore, was affirming itself on firmer ground.

So far, however, I had no interest in, or intention of involving myself directly in the discussion around these features, until, that is, I received an invitation from the same Dott. Pascuzzi to give a paper on the Maltese ‘pans’ in a convegno due to be held at Ferruzzano in August 2007. The first of a three days’ stay in Brancaleone, after an early-morning flight to Reggio, was spent in the company of Santino Pascuzzi, Nathaniel Cutajar and Orlando Sculli on an intensive survey of some of the palmenti around Ferruzzano.

The close similarity to the Maltese basins was confirmed; if anything, the Calabrian ones were consistently deeper. The climax for me was when we were shown a particular palmento, still covered by a constructed rural room, which, although clearly abandoned for decades, preserved all the stone and wooden apparatus used for wine-pressing until the 1950s. This direct experience convinced me even further that the likeliest purpose for the Maltese pans was the same as that of the Ferruzzano palmenti, that is, wine pressing. But there were still nagging dissimilarities in the Maltese, mainly Gozitan, examples that required explanation, such as the presence of additional secondary holes and cup-like depressions around the basins.

The detailed reconstruction of the Calabrian palmenti by Sculli (reproduced here in Fig. 5), therefore, can be taken on board to explain the mechanism of the Maltese ones. Since all the other wooden, metallic and stone paraphernalia involved in this mechanism have gone completely lost in the Maltese specimens, together with any written, as well as oral, documentation of traditional Maltese wine-pressing, we depend on these reconstructions of the much better preserved ones of Ferruzzano. The small holes around the devices still remain a bit of an enigma: the likeliest function one can suggest is that of the insertion of some wooden frame to facilitate the pressing mechanism.

For the full extent of their existence, however, the most helpful indications come from their Calabrian counterparts some of which go back to Roman, possibly even Greek, times. Orlando Sculli has compiled a whole body of archival evidence for viticulture in the area during the Byzantine period when some palmenti seem to have been adorned with incised or relief crosses. A substantial number of them, then, are known to have been still in use till the mid-20th century.

The Maltese ones seem to have gone out of use much earlier, but it is not possible to say when. The problem is that no verbal tradition has survived regarding them, neither written, nor oral. As we have seen, there were stages in the Late Middle Ages when wine did seem to play an important economic role, and some of these wine-presses could belong to those times. It is likely that at least some of them go back to the Roman period, but we await the official publication of the results of the research project at Mgarr ix-Xini to confirm such a dating.

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