The mosaic tesserae in the industrial Byzantine wine press, Yavne, Israel: A natural unusually hard chalk or a chemically transformed chalk?

Steve Weiner, Jon Seligman, Liat Nadav-Ziv, Elie Haddad, Yotam Asscher, Maria Ovechkina, Lior Regev, Eugenia Mintz, Elisabetta Boaretto

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Many of the surfaces of a large industrial scale wine press from the Byzantine period in Yavne, Israel, are covered in mosaic tesserae. These surfaces are part of the grape presses, storage pools, fermentation pools and also the walkways between these structures. The calcitic tesserae resemble limestone in color, texture and fracture properties. We were therefore surprised to discover that they are more disordered at the atomic level than consolidated limestone and in fact they are as disordered as porous and friable chalk. In addition SEM examination of fracture surfaces reveals abundant nannofossils, mostly coccoliths and foraminifera; properties that are also reminiscent of chalk. The nanofossil identifications shows that the tesserae are from the Middle Eocene, and this includes the chalky Maresha Formation that outcrops about 15kms from the site. SEM examination of polished surfaces shows that the larger pores of tesserae are lined with euhedral calcite crystals. Vickers hardness measurements show that the tesserae are much harder than chalk, and are comparable to limestone. There are two scenarios for explaining these seemingly contradictory observations. One scenario is that a chalky limestone geological formation with all these properties exists somewhere in the Mediterranean region and is the source of the raw material for the tesserae. The second scenario is that the Byzantine constructors of the wine press transformed a chalk into a harder and more consolidated material. Chalk transformation processes akin to plaster formation can be excluded based on the analyses of the stable carbon isotopic compositions of the tesserae, as well as their 14C concentrations. A chemical transformation using a weak acid that would only affect the calcite in the vicinity of the accessible pores, and leave the bulk of the chalk and its microfossils in a good state of preservation, is conceivable. In fact a by-product of producing wine is vinegar and the acetic acid of the vinegar could conceivably have been used for this purpose. If indeed a chemical transformation of soft chalk into a hard durable material was used, this would represent a “lost” technology that might even be useful in present times.

Original languageEnglish
Article number105906
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science
StatePublished - Jan 2024

Bibliographical note

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  • Byzantine wine press
  • C concentrations
  • Chemical transformation of chalk
  • Hardness
  • Middle Eocene chalk
  • Mosaic tesserae
  • Stable carbon isotopes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology


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