Updated: Dec 11, 2022
The Olive in Ancient Greece
Olive trees have existed longer than modern humans have. In Greece, we have found wild olive leaf fossils from the island of Evia dating back by 23 million years, and in Santorini, we have found fossils in volcanic craters dating as far back as 50,000 years. Olea europaea as it is scientifically named, reached us via Syria and Palestine, through Crete during the Bronze Age. Exploring the presence of the olive tree in Greece, in particular looking at its role in history in the Cycladic islands of Delos and (our home) Mykonos - a vortex in which the ancient and contemporary meet - examining the production methods, uses and trade of olive oil as we know it.
Humans began to use olive oil in the Middle Neolithic Period, around 4.500 BC, according to traces in a bowl found in Gerani Cave in Rethymno, in Crete. These traces imply that olive oil became part of the Cretan diet 6.500 years ago and that it was systematically being produced by around 2000 BC. Back in the day, “Extracting oil from olives involved three main steps: crushing the olives, pressing them, and finally separating the oil from the water. The first step involved treading the olives with clogs, crushing them with a stone or a roller, or pounding them in a mortar. In a more technically advanced stage, millstone crushers are used; the oldest known examples come from the city of Olynthus, destroyed by Philip of Macedonia in 348 BC.”
While the olive tree has been around for so long, the use of the olive fruit has changed over time. In 3.300 - 1.200 BC (the Bronze Age) its primary use was in cult practices as lamp oil for the worship of the divinities and in the offering of perfumes. Homer only makes sparse mentions of the olive tree but does distinguish the wild from the cultivated. In 700 BC, Hesiod writes about a day in the life of a farmer without any mention of the olive tree. The first significant record of a grove of olive trees appears in the Geometric Age, at the Divari Lagoon in Pylos of the Peloponnese, where it is likely that the fruits were grown to be eaten, but not to be turned into oil. It is not until the 17th and 16th century that there are records of the importance of olives in the geo-political economy as Greece expanded. The Athenian lawmaker Solon then made olive oil the only agricultural export in this time and forbade the cutting down of trees, regulating the now-familiar formation of groves in rows instead of the formerly habitual random scattering. We see the creation of storage vases and the sharing of cultivation methods. By the 6th century, oil is a highly prized commodity, gifted at the Olympic Games. In the second cenruty BC, records show custom duties, smuggling penalties, and stories of theft by pirates, indicating the value of olive oil in faraway seas and on distant shores.
The Olive processing in the Cyclades
The Cyclades include some 220 islands, not all inhabited. The most popular ones today are Mykonos and Delos, Santorini, Paros, and Naxos. The Cyclades, which means “the encircling islands”, are positioned around the ancient trading land of Delos and sit at the crux of Africa, Asia Minor, the Near East, and Europe. Operating as a stopover since Neolithic times, Delos’ position as an early offshore haven was coined during the Byzantine and Roman empires when they became economically prosperous, and so they remain. A truly cosmopolitan society was active in Delos, as a nexus of products from around the world; Cicero’s histories show that Gerizim Samaritans used their command of Jewish there to communicate deals from China and India in Babylon, acting as middlemen. Sabean Arabs were likely dealing at Delos. Italian merchants from the Campania were landlords, involved in the perfume trade. Egyptian cargo was comprised of purple dye, incense, linen, jewels, pearls, wines, and slaves. In 1990, UNESCO placed Delos on the world heritage list citing it as the “exceptionally extensive and rich” archaeological site, which “conveys the image of a great cosmopolitan Mediterranean port”.
Mythologically recognised as the birthplace of siblings Apollo (the god of light) and Artemis (the goddess of hunting), Delos beholds a sacred glow, with a unique characteristic of golden light cast on the ancient ruins visited by thousands of tourists every year. Archaeologists are only now discovering the role of the Olea europaea in Mykonos and Delos according to the artifacts.
Remains of mills have been studied in Delos, Paros and Mykonos, Antiparos, Tinos and Amorgos, giving us clues as to how and why the ancients produced and sold olive oil. Yet, the same machinery is found later in Roman remains, as well as across diverse cultures and eras. This makes it hard to exactly date when the presses were made and used, as the technologies are quite unchanged over time and interestingly, distance. Furthermore, the differentiation between olive oil presses and wine presses requires further disentangling. “The degree of difficulty distinguishing oil and wine production on the basis of material cultures varies between regions. Generally, Greek and Roman installations used similar, if not identical, equipment, particularly for mechanical pressing - a problem compounded by their likely multi-use nature for several commodities at different times in the annual agricultural cycle. Both may utilize mechanical presses, in the form of lever and weight, winch (or drum), screw or direct pressure screw systems, and both require waterproofed collection dolia or vats in some respect. The presence of a mechanical press is usually indicated in the archeological record by monolithic counterweights, hanging weight stones, press beds, piers, or niches.” - Emlyn Dodd Wine and Olive Oil Across The Ancient Cyclades. The only concrete differentiation between mechanical presses over time seems to be that those of the Classical and Hellenistic era functioned by two vertical mortisses, whereas in Imperial and Late Antiquity weights with exterior dovetail mortises were preferred.
Focusing on the ruins at Delos and Mykonos, the center-point of ancient trade, therefore conducts a wider analysis, as there is homogeneity in technologies and techniques in and beyond the region, indicating a widespread and active industry. “The evidence also supports a recently popularized notion of simultaneous diversity, insularity, and external/internal interconnectivity across Cycladic islands. Preliminary data indicates that different islands appear to prefer and utilize different press types, but that these types are, for the most part, found in other Mediterranean regions, indicating at least some degree of diachronic agricultural knowledge-networking and communication. Interestingly, the former point regarding differentiation amongst islands, seems to apply more to counterweights than press beds. The evidence discovered so far, nonetheless, implies that the production of oil and wine on Cycladic islands was certainly shaped by distinct island identities, yet maintained connection within an overarching broader Aegean or Mediterranean network.” - Emlyn Dodd
Studies of the Cyclades carried out as recently as between 2019 and 2020, using Google Earth, observe the ruins on Paros, Antiparos, Mykonos, Amorgos, Tinos and Ios and compliment older research and reports that document the existence of archaeological evidence of counterweights, especially taking stock of remains in remote, easy to overlook villages.
The recent findings at Mykonos and Delos include:
Mykonos: 3 counterweights for oil production, and 1 vat for wine production.
Delos: A combination of weights suggesting the pieces come from different eras, reflecting micro-regionality. Items of particular note include a reddish pink Opus signinum, well preserved vats, counterweights and press beds made of carefully carved marble in the theater district and shopping areas.
A precious cosmetic product
What is clear from the relatively limited research on the subject of olive oil at Mykonos and Delos is that it was a prized cosmetic commodity, cultivated predominantly for the creation of perfumes and spiced with exotic botanicals.
“On the Linear B tablets the olive oil is sometimes described as scented, with sage, rose or cyperus. There is mention too of oil for clothes which matches a practice mentioned by Homer and suggests something like rose water (Boardman The Olive in the Mediterranean p193).
Furthermore, there are recipes recorded including marjoram, specifically used for athletes. Marjoram is known and used today also as a muscle relaxant.
Perfumeries in the Theatre District at Delos stand alongside monuments of the island including the House of Cleopatra, the Temple of Isis, The Sacred Lake of Appollo, the Agora of the Italians, and the iconic Lions. Presses from the very late second century are found inside a house originally built in the fifth century BC. There, two lever and weight presses
stand, including a set of three settling basins and jars in which some charred olive stones remained. Six pithoi make 4,000 liters of oil possible to store. This evidence points to the storage of oil for perfumes, and sale of perfume as a prized possession. Pliny writes “In the old days, the most appreciated perfume came from Delos”.
The most affluent stage of Delos’ history was in 16 BC when the Romans granted free port privileges, and allowed the city to develop rapidly into a global trade center, bringing together a community of artisans and merchants. Records from this time found in Delos inform us of farming leases as well as trading licenses. While Delos itself boasted an abundance of vineyards for wine production, there’s a parallel lack of olive tree groves on record, with only 1 olive tree noted, standing in the Sacred Grove that was rented by priests. In contrast, an abundance of wild olive trees are recorded in Mykonos.
An inventory from 208 BC found in Athenian administration engravings include farming leases for the domains of Apollo’s Sanctuary at Delos, describing cereals, fig trees, apple trees, vineyards, 157 olive trees, 87 grafted oleasters, as well as 200 oleasters in Thaleon, Mykonos. Another inventory mentions 25 oleasters in Dorion-Chersonesos in Mykonos. Archaeological studies inform us that farmers were required to prove the number of fig, olive, and vine trees they left after the lease of a land was equal to the number they found prior to their lease. Leases seemed to average 5 to 10 years. One argument for why there may be a relative lack of olive trees cultivated therefore, is that it would not have been within trading interest. An olive tree takes 40 years to become fiscally rewarding and are planted either for one’s old age or of the next generation. From seed to tree, there is a 10-year wait, followed by a 20 maturation process at least. Leasers interested in dealing goods would not have invested in the manpower and capital it took to raise them. While the trees themselves were not shown to
grow in the commercial region, by the number of vases we see that perfume, a relatively easy substance to produce, was fervently sold as a premium product. In fact, from Delos to Athens, perfume merchants were seen as worldly and opulent, making their shops a place for socializing and exchanging stories, news and political information.
“The production of oil and farming of the olive became really big business in the Mediterranean world in the last centuries BC, which saw the empire of Alexander the Great, the rise and fall of Hellenistic kingdoms from Greece to India, and the rise of Rome.” - Boardman, The Olive in the Mediterranean.
The city of Athens was always agriculturally naturally inclined towards olive farming over wheat, and as such the symbol of the olive branch came to represent Athenian culture and the goddess Athena. This symbolism of the olive tree as a fundamental to Athenian, therefore Greek, culture was attested by the Persian invasion, when the sacred olive tree at the Acropolis was cut. Rendering itself holy and acquiring religious status, the tree miraculously grew back when Greece reclaimed power and vanquished the Persians.
Since ancient times olive oil has served purposes of worship, seduction, beauty and medicine. “Liquid gold” as Homer named it, or “the great healer” as described by Hippocrates, was medicinally administered to cure sicknesses.
Today olive trees cover around 60 percent of the cultivated land (approximately 132 million trees) in Greece, which produces around 350 thousand tons of olive oil each year (3rd in the world). When it comes to consumption Greeks are by far the first in the world (yearly 25lit per capita consumption). Scientific evidence attests the benefits of consuming high phenolic olive oil include anti-aging, protecting the arteries, lowering blood pressure, preventing strokes, lowering bad cholesterol, reducing inflammation in the body, reducing the risk of type II diabetes and more.
When it comes to observing the role of the olive in ancient culture it seems that the importance of the olive has been underestimated by recent authors as a result of the evidence in the epigraphic documentation to date. With the limited resources available from academic studies of the ancient olive, we are really only just discovering the fruit’s significance in the past. What we know all too well is that olive and its precious fruits are a blessing that has nourished the Mediterranean countires for centuries. Science and archaeology offer us the tools to build an informed and improved vision of the past, but it is up to us to improve producing practices, increase quality and appreciate the vast and deeply nourishing properties of Extra Virgin Olive Oil today.
Anita Zachou - Agronomist, Expert Olive Oil Taster
Lia Ikkos - Content Creator
We would like to thank archaeologist Mrs. Anastasia Strousopoulou & licensed tourist guide Mrs. Marilena Sfaellou for their valuable contribution.
Wine and Olive Oil in the Ancient Cyclades, Emlyn Dodd
Mediterranean Archaeology Vol. 32/33 (2019/2020), Published By: Meditarch
The Olive in the Mediterranean: Its Culture and Use, J. Boardman
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences Vol. 275, No. 936, The Early History of Agriculture (Jul. 27, 1976) , Published By: Royal Society
The Production of Perfumes in Antiquity: The Cases of Delos and Paestum
Jean-Pierre Brun - American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 104, No. 2 (Apr., 2000). Published By: The University of Chicago Press