>Olives and Olive Oil in Antiquity

>In a recent post tittle “Green Oil,” I discussed the use of olive oil in Psalm 92:10. Archaeology Magazine recently interviewed Anagnostis Agelarakis, a physical anthropologist at Adelphi University about the production of olive oil in antiquity. Agelarakis and his wife produce premium extra virgin olive oil in Crete. In this interview they discuss the production on olive oil in ancient Greece and how olive oil was used in antiquity. The following are excerpts from the interview:

Q: Today, many people consider olive oil a health food. Did the ancient Greeks view it in a nutritional sense or was it valued simply for flavor or other properties?

A: It was not only considered as a health product but something that had in essence a divine power embedded in it–defined in a pragmatic way not in a occult or abstract way. It was a gift of the goddess Athena to the Athenians, therefore, it had the emblematic presence of the goddess.

Q: How was it used for a food product?

A: It was considered a necessary item for daily sustenance. It was used to cook with and also used in the raw form in a salad dressing–a salad dressing of the ancient Greeks involved olive oil, of course extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, sea salt, and some honey and that then was shaken well, and it was drizzled over salads that they were preparing for eating.

Q: Did olive oil have any medicinal uses in ancient Greece?

A: Hippocrates uses olive oil-based ointments for all kinds of uses and for treating trauma, scratches, wounds, and concussions that are not too deeply penetrating; it was considered to have healing power. In essence, it does because it contains the vital antioxidants scalene, flavonoids, and polyphenols at a minimum. Also, it has Omega components such as Omega 9, Vitamin A, Vitamin K, and traces of Vitamin C. It has Vitamin E, as well, which is in itself an antioxidant, so it has the ability to enhance and repair components of our skin. It is very important for our skin; our skin is the largest organ that we have. It also has in it essential amino acids that are absolutely necessary for a good function of the human gut, the alimentary tract, and the human body at large. Basically, it is a wonderful material that is completely natural. Remember, olive oil is the only vital oil from plants that you can eat raw and untreated. Obviously, being untreated of course it has no chemical additives; it hasn’t been manipulated in any sort of process that would adulterate it. It is really a gift from nature if not of the gods as the ancients firmly believed.

The article discusses the cultivation of lives and the production of olive oil in antiquity. It also discusses the use of olive oil in religion and sports and as food, medicine, and cosmetic.

The interview is very engaging and informative. If you like olive oil as I do, you will enjoy knowing more about the nutritional and medicinal properties of olive oil.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern BaptistSeminary


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5 Responses to >Olives and Olive Oil in Antiquity

  1. Duane Smith says:

    >Claude,Two very interesting posts. In enjoyed Agelarakis’ remarks. Thanks. There’s a fascinating book by Amnon Cohen, Economic Life in Ottoman Jerusalem, that deals with commodity markets in Ottoman Jerusalem. He worked with extremely detailed records starting in October 1548 and continuing through April 1599. These records give nearly daily prices for olive oil and a few other commodities (meat, soap, flour and bread) from the official Sūq al-Sultan in Jerusalem. There was also an illegal black market for olive oil. The records show tax allocations for olive trees. The Ottomans taxed rūmānī trees (old trees, assumed to be from Roman times) and islāmī trees (trees planted during the Islamic period) at different rates. They even had an olive oil futures market of sorts. Not only was olive oil used for light and in cooking, it was also a major ingredient in soap. I once tried to use this data and Cohen’s interpretation of it to understand olive oil pricing variations at Ugarit where we have a couple tablets that imply such prices. Prices at Ugarit are stated in equivalent shekels of silver. The prices, when restated in terms of percentage changes, at Ugarit seem to have varied within the range one sees in the Jerusalem data. I have some methodological problems with my own analysis but I do think the Jerusalem material is useful in understanding how these markets worked in a pre-industrial economy. By the way, about an hour ago, I scanned a slide of an Iron Age olive press from Gezer. It was uncovered in 1971. I may post it in a day or two.


  2. >Duane,Thank you for this information. I did not know that had a commodity market in Ottoman Jerusalem. Have you published your work on the price of olive at Ugarit? If not, I think you should.P.S. I saw you birthday card. Happy birthday.Claude Mariottini


  3. Sister Mary says:

    >I thoroughly enjoyed these 2 posts and the links on the Olive.I fell in love with the olive tree when I studied in Italy 1978-1981. I even had a tree, hoping for fruit, but a sudden freeze in Texas killed it.Your site is very interesting!


  4. >Dear Sister Mary,Olive oil is a wonderful thing. I love eating olives and I enjoy olive oil in my food. I am happy to know that you enjoy my blog. I hope others will enjoy reading what I write.Claude Mariottini


  5. Duane Smith says:

    >Thanks for the suggestion. My discussion of the price of olive oil at Ugarit was in the context of the interpretation of KTU 4.710, a “shipper” or perhaps an “invoice” for wheat, olives and olive oil. The tablet has a raft of problems. Not the least is the fact that it is not written in the standard Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet but likely a shorter cuneiform alphabet that is a close cousin to the standard one. But the price of olive oil plays into the interpretation of the tablet. I’ve thought about publishing some of this material in a more conventional way but at my age and station I’m not sure it is worth the effort. If you are interested, the main post is “Wheat and Olives for the House of Yatiru” and the post is supported by a detailed discussion of the tablet in a PDF file. It is in this file that I discuss the price of olive oil.


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