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Aegeus Society For Aegean Prehistory

ARTICLES | 2011

19 September 2011

Oiling the wheels of civilization

Colin Renfrew & Evi Margaritis Current World Archaeology 48 (2011): 46-50.

Abstract (from the Introduction)

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. A combination of data from archaeological research along with new archaeobotanical information demonstrates 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, then 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 is a non-destructive method using, for example, gas chromatography, which detects the chemical signature of olive oil and other contents in vessels 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.

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