YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–For seven years, Armenak Melkonian has been keeping an eye on a cave in Southern Armenia that recently produced a sensation in the world of archeology.
Along with two other guards, the 41-year-old is in charge of protecting a cave in a southern Armenian province where a team of Armenian, American and Irish archaeologists has unearthed the oldest wine-making facility ever found.
On an excavation site near the village of Areni, in Vayots Dzor, the archeologists used biochemical techniques to identify a dry red vintage made about 6,000 years ago, making it 1,000 years older than any other wine-making facility discovered.
The latest find in Areni has grabbed headlines in international media this week and is the second major discovery in Armenia since last year when the world’s oldest leather shoe, about 5,500 years old, was found at the same cave complex.
Melkonian, who is from a nearby village and also works as a chef in a restaurant near what the locals call Bird’s Cave, says he could not imagine how valuable the site he’d been protecting would turn out to be.
“I had been here before the archaeologists came… In the beginning we did not know what it was. Then we learned how valuable that was. That’s why we protect it,” says Melkonian.
“We feel proud to have such a value in our land, here in Armenia,” adds the man who is paid less than $100 a month for keeping the site intact.
The excavation near Areni unveiled a picture of a complex society where mourners tasted a special vintage made at a caveside cemetery. Carbon dating by specialists showed a desiccated grape vine found near a wine press was grown around 4000 BC.
Boris Gasparian, who led the international team of archeologists, contends that the discovered complex had more of a ritual than economic significance for the people who lived in this area back then. “The unearthed storages and production complex must have served for taking care of the needs of the deceased,” Gasparian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
Areni is a village about 100 kilometers to the south of the Armenian capital Yerevan. It is famous for its grape variety and wines that have the same name. There is hardly a household in the village that would not make wine at home, which is the main, if not only, source of income for the locals.
People in Areni say they were little surprised that evidence of the oldest-ever wine press was discovered in their area. Still, they appear very much proud about this discovery.
Kima, a woman in Areni, says the discovery is very much obliging and will make them work harder to improve the quality of the local wine.
“Yes, you do get excited when you know that this was the place where they made wine first. This really gets you excited. You want to make it good and of high quality. This really matters. You feel proud. Soon we’ll also have a good tourist spot. People will come and go,” says Kima.
“If you drink wine a lot, it is too bad. If you don’t drink wine, it is much worse. But if you do take it moderately, it is excellent,” says another Areni villager.