Olive oil History at a glance

Olive tree cultivation and olive oil production has been with humankind since time immemorial, according to evidence that provide the artefacts and archaeological remains of the most ancient civilisations. The olive has been an integral part of life in the eastern Mediterranean from the first stirrings of civilisation. There are stone mortars and presses used for olive oil extraction that date back to 5000 BC.
Archaeological findings from the Minoan Palaces in Crete are fine examples of olive oil’s role in the Cretan or Minoan civilisation, which reached its zenith between 2000 and 1450 BC. Throughout the various civilisations, the olive tree and olive oil have occupied pivotal positions in the agricultural economy of Mediterranean countries and in their commerce with neighbouring populations. The Minoans of Crete were among the first cultures to achieve prosperity on olive oil, and Crete continues to be an important olive production area to the present day.

The olive tree was a particularly important symbol for the ancient Greeks. It was connected to their diet and their religion, and was used as a decorative motif on vases, in gold jewellery and elsewhere. It was considered a symbol of peace, wisdom and victory. That is why the winners of the Olympic Games were crowned with a wreath of wild olive (the cotinus).
Olives in antiquity were usually gathered by beating the tree with rods, although ancient authors condemned this practice. Pliny repeatedly recommends: “Do not shake and beat your trees. Gathering by hand each year ensures a good harvest.”
The olive-harvesting knowledge of the ancients, incredibly advanced for its time, was often aided by astronomy, used to predict poor harvests. Thales of Miletus, for example, used his astronomical observations to predict an excellent harvest for 596 BC. He immediately established many new oil-presses on Chios and Melos, making the islands’ inhabitants rich in a year. Democritus also studied the relationship between good harvests and the positions of the stars.

Olive oil had many uses in ancient Greece, differing according to social status. Poor people, for instance, did not consume olive oil but ate many cereals. The rich, on the other hand, were able to use olive oil in cooking, for cleaning their bodies and for lighting. Olive oil was also a valuable medicine in the hands of ancient Greek doctors. Hippocrates mentions 60 different conditions which could be treated with it, such as skin conditions, wounds and burns, gynaecological ailments, ear infections and many others. When medicine was not enough to save the patient, olive oil was used in laying out the dead. Women washed the body and anointed it with olive oil or scented oils. Oil, wine, honey and other products were offered to the dead at the graveside.

Another popular use of olive oil in ancient Greece was for oiling athletes’ bodies before exercise in the gymnasium and at games. Olive oil was also a valuable winner’s prize. The city of Athens needed about 70,000 kilos of oil to reward the winners of the Panathenian Games, held every four years.

The winner’s prize varied according to the event. The best runner received about 70 amphoras of 35-40 kilos, i.e. 2,500 kilos of olive oil, while the chariot-race winner got double, i.e. about 5,000 kilos. These prizes were worth a lot of money if you consider that a day’s wages for an Athenian craftsman was 1 Attic drachma, the equivalent of about 3 kilos of olive oil. And that was just the price of common oil, whereas the winner’s oil was much better quality and more expensive. Of course no-one would buy this oil to eat; instead it was used for anointing the bodies of rich young athletes.