Next time you drop an olive into your martini or toss a handful across a pizza, take a moment to look at this humble little fruit: it was the olive that help kick-start civilisation.
In his 1972 book The Emergence of Civilisation, Colin Renfrew argued that olive cultivation played an important role in this development. Now, new research by Evi Margaritis and Mim Bower at the British School at Athens and the McDonald Institute, University of Cambridge, suggest the proof was grown on Crete. Data from archaeological research combined with new archaeobotanical information demonstrate that olive oil was a product of considerable importance in Prehistoric Crete.
A versatile plant, the olive tree was used for food, fuel, lighting, ritual use, pampering, and trade. It is among the earliest fruit trees domesticated in the Old World: at Teleilat Ghassul, north of the Dead Sea in modern Jordan, olive stones have been found with dates, cereals, and pulses, dating to the 4th millennium BC. As this region is too dry for olives to grow naturally, those found here were likely the products of cultivation, possibly grown under irrigation. If so, it raises the question: were olive trees being domesticated and cultivated elsewhere, too?
The evidence for the earliest use of the olive comes from analysing organic residues found on the interiors of pots. This non-destructive method uses, for example, gas chromatography to detect the chemical signature of olive oil and other contents in vessels that were used for storage, transport or cooking. Using these techniques on finds from the cave of Gerani, near the modern town of Rethymno, revealed that Cretans were using olive oil in their cooking as early as the 4th millennium BC.
But if we want to see the steady growth in importance of the olive throughout the Bronze Age, we need to study the actual remains of the plant themselves. This can best be done by using pollen analysis. Oliver Rackham of Cambridge University and Jennifer Moody of the University of Texas at Austin show there was a substantial presence of olives trees on the west of Crete during the Late Neolithic, before the big take off in the Bronze Age (3000-2100 BC). From then onwards, there are indications for large-scale olive cultivation.
Evidence for this comes from charred olive stones and pieces of charcoal retrieved from archaeological excavations at Myrtos, Vasiliki, and the early levels at Knossos itself, where Jane Renfrew has been studying the archaeobotanical remains.
The big expansion comes in the Middle Bronze Age (2100-1700 BC). This is the time when the sites at Knossos, Phaistos, and Malia are becoming real palaces, and finds of olive stones and olive wood become more numerous. Further evidence comes from the Minoan towns at Kommos and Palaikastro in east Crete, and from rural sites at Chamalevri and Smari. But it is during the period of the palaces that the olive achieves its peak of production. In Crete, the olive becomes the prestige object par excellence, used by the rulers to demonstrate their power and wealth, and thus, inevitably, it was over-produced.
According to Sir Arthur Evans, the first excavator of Knossos, in his seminal study The Palace of Minos, first published in 1935, the storage facilities at Knossos could hold more than 246,000l of olive oil. A good example of this is the conical cup full of complete olive fruit from a well at the palace of Kato Zakros – the smallest of the four main palaces in Crete, discovered and excavated by Nikolaos Platon in the 1960s. The olives in the conical cup survived in the mud at the bottom of a well due to the anaerobic conditions and, according the excavator, were part of a ritual deposit and offering to the gods.
As the olive became important, so mass production began. The first physical evidence for the processing of olive oil in Crete comes from the site of Chamalevri, near of Rethymno, dated to 2160-2000 BC; here thousands of fragmented olive stones were retrieved. These stones were crushed in Antiquity – crushing the stones is one of the necessary steps, along with pressing, required to extract the oil. It is impossible to specify whether these olive finds were wild or domesticated fruits, as this is a difficult distinction to make in the archaeobotanical record. The important point, however, is that these remains provide evidence not only of the extensive presence of the tree in Crete but also of the tree’s exploitation for its products: for food, the production of olive oil, and wood for fuel and construction. Such timber could not have been produced from the small shrubs of the wild olive, but would instead require the quantity and the quality that only a tree intentionally managed by humans could provide.
More proof of olive oil production comes from numerous installations discovered in various excavations in Crete. Deep large-scale trough-spouted clay tubs containing liquid were found at the Early Bronze Age site of Myrtos, excavated by Peter Warren and the British School at Athens. Mortars and basins suitable for the crushing of fruits were recovered from Middle Minoan contexts at Kommos. By the late Minoan era, massive stone spouted press-beds, resting on stone platforms, are found. These spouted press-beds, which used wooden beams and large suspended stone weights, suggest the pressing of olives for olive oil at sites such as Kommos, Knossos, Phaistos, Malia, Mochlos, Palaikastro, Gournia, and others. They clearly indicate the production of olive oil in the palaces, as well as in large town houses and high-ranking country houses and ‘villas’.
John Riley, of Cape Town University, has pulled together archaeological, environmental and biochemical evidence to enable him to present a comprehensive picture of the nutritional and storage properties of Minoan olive oil. He argues that the quality of Minoan olive oil was improved by the use of stone oil presses and clay spouted separators, and was equal to that of the cold-pressed virgin olive oils produced today.
Olive oil was used in Prehistoric Crete in a variety of ways. First and foremost, it was a component of the diet, though possibly to a lesser extent than today. It was also the base for cosmetics and beauty products, both as a cleanser and for perfumed oils and creams. Organic residue analysis of the contents of pottery storage and cooking vessels shows traces of olive oil and aromatic oils from the Mycenaean and Minoan periods.
At the 2nd millennium site of Chamalevri in central Crete, for example, olive oil was mixed with iris oil, honey, and resin – as has been recorded by Yiannis Tzedakis and Holley Martlew in their project entitled Minoans and Mycenaeans: Flavours of their time, which focused on residue analysis from vessels recovered in various excavations.
Another major use of olive oil was for lighting. Clay lamps using wicks immersed in a flammable liquid were common objects in Early and Middle Minoan tombs on Crete. They are found also in settlements such as Koumasa, Mochlos, and Myrtos. In the Middle Minoan period, stone as well as clay lamps began to be used throughout Crete, and from that time became a standard element of Minoan life. Virtually every house of the period has produced at least one lamp – usually more.
On the record
Literary evidence for the olive is seen in the Linear A and Linear B scripts. Linear A, which probably records the indigenous language of Crete, is still undeciphered, but ideograms can be identified in it that seem to represent olives and olive oil together with other commodities such as wheat and figs. The same ideograms are found in Linear B, the Mycenaean form of the Greek language, which occurred on clay tablets in Crete much later. These references to olives confirm that the plant was already a fundamental element of the agricultural economy of Crete by that period. The information in the Linear B tablets of Knossos indicates the number of the olive trees and the quantity of the olive oil subsequently produced: according to one such tablet, 81,261l of olive oil were produced at Mesara in central Crete and one of the palatial olive groves numbered 3,315 olive trees.
John Chadwick, who, with Michael Ventris, deciphered the Linear B script, drew attention to the fact that two different kinds of olive were recorded on the Knossos tablets. He claimed that the tablets refer more frequently to oil derived from wild olives than to the domesticated variety, possibly indicating the intensive management of wild trees. The record allows some estimation of the quantities of oil that the palaces were producing and the tablets seem to show that the Late Bronze Age producers were more interested in olive oil for industrial and ritual purposes rather than for culinary ones. In addition, it seems that perfumed oils were valued and that the use of additives such as wild pomegranates, sage, and cypress were used to give an aromatic character to the oil.
The presence of the olive tree is well established in the Late Neolithic period, and its intensive cultivation started in the Early Bronze Age, as farmers realised that pruning the twigs for fire and fodder resulted in the growth of the tree and in the transformation of the fruit to yield larger and oilier varieties.
The ‘pre-domestication’ exploitation of the wild olives would have developed in this context: wild trees would have been ‘tamed’ and cultivated by pruning for fodder and fuel. By the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1700 BC), and reaching a peak during the Late Bronze Age, intensive cultivation of the olive tree led to the extensive production of olive oil, creating a surplus that was exported to different areas of the Mediterranean. Social and economic change took place during that period and the small-scale olive processing households were replaced by centralised and large-scale production for export, operating within an external market economy. By around 1600 BC, olive oil was being exported in Minoan alabastra, small vessels usually containing perfumed olive oil, and in stirrup jars that went to the Cycladic islands, to the Greek mainland and to the eastern Mediterranean.
In the late 2nd millennium, Minoan society responded to exterior market opportunities by the creation of specialised olive oil production centres – the final step in a process that had begun over a millennium before. Olive oil may not have been a Minoan invention, but it was they who pushed its production to an industrial level. They had both the resources and the economic strength to transform the domestic production and make it a valuable market product. An invention becomes a successful innovation only when it attains widespread use. That is the gift the Minoans offered to the rest of the world in their development of the new industry, based upon the ‘Queen of all trees’: the olive.
Queen of all trees
If you see an olive grove, you know what part of the world you are in: the Mediterranean. The olive is the only tree that grows almost exclusively here.
Today the olive tree covers more than 10.8 million hectares of cultivated land around the world, of which 95% is in the Mediterranean region. One can see both wild and cultivated olive trees in this part of the world: they have more or less the same climatic requirements. Wild olives are found mainly in the lower altitudes – between sea level and 300m – along the shores of the Aegean, the coast of southern Turkey, the maritime belt of Lebanon, and in Israel as far south as Mount Carmel. Greece is now third worldwide for the production of table olives and of olive oil, but the situation was different in Antiquity. During the 2nd millennium BC, Crete produced huge quantities of high-quality olive oil, on an industrial scale: a valuable trading commodity of great economic importance, which the Minoans made well known to the rest of the Mediterranean and, ultimately, the World.
The olive tree, described by Roman writer Columella as the ‘Queen of all trees‘, is very tough: with proper attention it can survive for centuries, sometimes for millennia. Even where the tree has suffered from disease, fire or frost, as long as part of the root structure remains intact, new shoots can emerge from the root or the bole that will regenerate the tree. This extraordinary ability to survive and rejuvenate itself gave rise to the tree‘s reputation for immortality. It became connected with various legends in Antiquity. One story tells how the goddess Athena won from Poseidon the patronage of Attica with the gift of the olive to Athens. The olive was sacred to Athena, appearing on the Athenian coinage, and it was a design used for the decoration of vessels and frescos.
According to the ancient writer Pausanias, when the Persians set fire to Athens, the olive was burnt down; but on the very same day it grew again to the height of two cubits. Indeed, olive shoots sprout readily from a stump. The great age of some existing olive trees suggests it is perfectly possible that the olive tree of the Acropolis goes back to a much earlier date than the Classical period.
SOURCE: Colin Renfrew, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research Evi Margaritis, British School at Athens
All images, unless stated: Colin Renfrew and Evi Margaritis.