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Material Culture Report: Olives

by Sarah Henkel

Olea europea is the botanical name of the cultivated olive found in Israel. This olive most likely originated in Israel and is one of 400 species in the olive family. The genus Olea exists in Africa, India and Australia but Olea europaea is found only in the Mediterranean. The presence of olives in Israel is dated back to 42,980 B.C. The cultivation olives most likely didn’t begin until the Chalcolithic period (4500-3150 BCE). Consistent throughout the history of olives in the Mediterranean is their significance in the cultures of the region. “When and where man [sic] and nature allowed it to flourish, the olive tree and its majority product, OL [unpurified vegetable oil, remained one of the cornerstones of rural human existence in Israel for the past three thousand years (Eitam, 23).”

The growth of olive trees and their flourishing in the Mediterranean is due to the fact that the species originated in that specific area and was well-adapted to the climate and soil; “the lime soil of the Samarian hills, and the terra rosa of the Judean, Galilean and Carmel mountains are ideal for growing olive trees in these light to medium soils, which are well aerated. Olive trees roots spread deeply and widely, and enjoy moisture and nourishment from quite a large volume of ground (Eitam, 30).” Olive oil was historically and continues to be central to the survival of families in the Middle East. “The cultivation of the olive tree in our area is not just another agricultural branch among the different branches of our economy. It is a whole culture and the farmer in the Middle East would not exchange it for any other plant. Olive orchards were an important and even sacred part of the family’s property, and were inherited from one generation to the next, even when only one tree was possessed. In Arab villages there are occasions when there are 2-3 partners to one tree (Eitam, 31).”

Archaeological studies have demonstrated the historical significance olives in antiquity. To understand the archaeological evidence of oil production it is necessary to understand the process for the production of olive oil:

Steps in the Manufacture of Olive Oil
The production of olive oil is accomplished in three stages:
1. Crushing. The olives must be crushed before oil can be produced from them.
2. Pressing. By exerting pressure on the olive mash, a liquid is extracted consisting of oil and watery lees (sometimes called mohal in Hebrew).
3. Separation. The oil that floated on top of the watery lees was then skimmed off or separated by other means.

The quality of the oil is affected by several factors: the quality of the olives themselves, the time of picking, the way they were cared for between harvesting and pressing, and the method of pressing (Frankel, 26).

There are 115 Iron-Age oil-press complexes found at the city of Ekron. It is thought that at the time of production 230 tons of oil produced were produced at the site of that city. The presses in Ekron are characteristic of the Iron-Age: a stone block press with a lever weighted with stones which applied pressure to the olives to crush them. It is believed, “The most likely vessel used for the storage of olive oil during the Bronze Age as well as the Iron Age and later periods would have been a clay jug or a jar.” (45) Most oil presses are thought to have been placed within caves or another closed structure; the Mishnah cites the olive press as central to the city (Eitam, 115). There are, of course, variations in models of presses, containers for storage used, and locations of the oil press between different regions.

While olive oil was produced primarily for daily consumption it was also used in ritual practices. It is believed the “most frequent use of ritual oil was for individual meal offerings which were the most prevalent: grain or flour mixed with oil to which frankincense was sometimes added (Eitam, 126).” Oil production in the Sabbatical year (7th year) was conducted in the simplest mode of production as a means of fulfilling the biblical interpretation of Nachmanides; he states “in his Torah commentary on Leviticus, 25, 7, … “And one should act during the Sabbatical year as the poor people act” (Eitam, 118).” Ancient oil presses are sometimes found near structures for worship. “That oil was associated with ritual may be deduced from the fact that oil installations were found next to cultic and incense structure in Ta’anach and Dan, and apparently at Farah as well (Eitam, 127).”

Eitam, David and Heltzer, Michael, Eds. Olive Oil in Antiquity: Israel and Neighbouring Countries from the Neolithic to the Early Arab Period. Padova: Sargon srl, 1996.
Frankel, Rafael and Avitsur, Shmuel and Ayalon, Etan. History and Technology of Olive Oil in the Holy Land. Arlington: Oléarius Editions, 1994.

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