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 wine-presses 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 the author 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.
Appendix 1: The wine presses at It-Tafal ta’ Bingemma
Three rock-cut wine presses were examined in this area to the south of Mgarr. All three of them are scooped out of the horizontal surface on the edges of the natural rock terraces that characterize this steep hillside of Bingemma, on the contour falling roughly between 10 and 20 metres below the Victoria Lines of Dwejra (that is, c. 170m. a.s.l.) (Grid Ref.: 439 740). As the place name implies, the soil in this area is very clayey and the hillside has been turned into slightly inclined terrace fields by utilizing as retaining walls the alignments of huge boulders that have detached themselves from the higher coralline layer over the last thousands of years and deposited themselves at different levels on the same hillside. To reach them, from Mgarr one has to take the road to Il-Wilga ta’ Bingemma, turning left (east) at the level of the Pumping Station. The property in question, known also as Tal-Liru, is reached beyond the end of a steep, concrete-surfaced, uphill road; it extends over three terraces as described above.
a) The first set of basins is met as soon as one turns left (east) from the concrete road to the lowest terrace of the field. It is carved on the horizontal surface of a huge coralline boulder that has somehow detached itself from the parent rock and tilted sideways, because the floor surface of both basins is now at a steep angle (c. 20o) to the horizontal. This shift must, therefore, have taken place after the carving of the basins (Fig. 7).
The higher level basin is rectangular in shape and measures 1.00 x 1.48m with a depth of about 15cm. All the edges, however, except for the western end, have been worn down to almost the floor level. This means that only a faint trace has survived of the hole that connected it with the lower basin (Fig. 8). The smaller basin at the lower level is roughly oval in shape and measures 0.77 x 0.40m. It is also 15cm deep. Beyond the smaller basin is a sharp drop onto the lower field. A combination of three communicating holes at the opposite side of the larger basin might have served to attach the head of the horizontal pressing beam (Fig. 9).
b) The second set is on a slightly higher level and some 20 metres to the east. This time the basins have been cut at the very lower end of the terraced rock, so that the lower basin is now covered by soil. Only the outline of the upper edge of the side closest to the higher basin is visible. It seems to have had a semicircular shape with the straight side (c. 1m. wide) connected with the upper basin via a perforation in the rock (Fig. 10). Two rock-cut ‘rope-holes’, one on either side, might have served to attach ropes to pull down the horizontal wooden beam which had its head inserted in a deep hole on the vertical wall at the opposite end of the higher basin (Fig. 11). The upper basin is roughly square and measures 0.95 x 0.95m. Originally it must have been more than 15cm deep all round, but the north side, closest to the lower basin, has been worn down almost to floor level.
Another, but shallower and roughly circular basin has been cut on the east side of the square basin. It is connected via a channel to the small circular hole (the rope hole mentioned above) which has another perforation apparently leading into the lower basin.
c) The third set is cut on the upper edge of the rock terrace with a sharp drop beyond it into the lower field, but the orientation of the sequence of basins is sideways (Fig. 12). Even in this case the upper basin has a hole on the vertical wall at its back, probably for the insertion of the head of the horizontal pressing beam (Fig. 13). The basin is almost rectangular, 1.25m long and between 1m and 1.15m wide. The depth also varies from 15 to 25 cm. The lower basin is almost oval, measuring 0.75 x 0.80m and c. 25cm deep. As usual, a small hole at the bottom of the upper basin connects it with the lower one. Two shallow hollows, this time one on either side of the lower basin, seem to have been intended to secure some wooden frame. A third circular hollow at a lower lever might have served the same purpose (Fig. 14).
The presence of hollows in the vertical rock surface at the back of the upper basin in the last two examples in all probability served for the insertion of a horizontal beam used to exert pressure on the contents of the upper basin. I firmly believe that this constitutes additional evidence that these rock-cut features were intended for pressing some agricultural product, such as grapes, rather than for retting, as suggested before.
Appendix 2: The wine presses at Il-Lippija
The site in question is reached from the road that leaves Mgarr in the direction of Gnejna, taking the right turning to Il-Lippija and Ghajn Tuffieha just before starting the descent towards the bay. At the end of the made-up road is a series of garrigue (xaghri) plots of land bounded by low and flimsy rubble walls. At the opposite end the property overlooks the valley of the Roman Baths of Ghajn Tuffieha, so that the site is accessible also from that side.
a) The first set is very easy to identify if you know where to find it, like our guide did. He also knew that what is visible is only part of a larger system part of which is covered by a small reclaimed field above it. In fact, traces of rock-cut basins are visible beyond the rubble wall on the opposite side of the small field. The visible part, however, forms a complete wine-press combination. Again it is carved on the upper edge of a bed-rock terrace (as opposed to the rock boulders of Bingemma). The sequence of basins is also oriented sideways, along the edge of the rock terrace (Fig. 15).
It consists of an upper, almost square, basin measuring 1.16 x 1.10-1.17m. It is comparatively deep, 30 cm. It is connected by means of a large square hole (14 x 13 cm) to a lower basin, much smaller in size but deeper (44 cm) and of irregular shape. A very unusual element is the rock-carved, but partly broken, spout that projects from the upper into the lower basin (Fig. 16). Another higher basin was originally carved on the opposite side but only traces of it survive. It was also connected to the lower basin by means of smaller hole, at the outer corner.
Even this set has a number of hollows, one of them as much as 30 cm deep, on either side of the larger basin, possibly for securing some wooden frame.
b) About 100 metres further east is another set on a spot which overlooks the main road to Ghajn Tuffieha. This time only the lower basin is visible (Fig. 17). It is oval in shape and was formerly connected by a hole to the upper basin that has been concealed by a heap of stone chippings; only its edge just beyond the connecting hole is visible. It seems that at some stage another basin with a similar oval shape was carved in the opposite direction giving the whole the shape of a pince-nez. The floor of this second basin too is on a higher level. The floor of the lower basin ranges from 27 to 37 cm in depth. This time one small hollow is visible, at the corner where the lower basin met the covered upper basin.
What is striking in the case of these two wine presses is the absence of cultivated fields within a radius of 200 metres. The area is in fact predominantly garigue and starts to turn into proper cultivated fields beyond the lip of the plateau, where the terrain descends into the valley of Ghajn Tuffieha. Consequently, vines could have been grown only in small pockets of soil amid the rocky terrain, or else some distance away.