Olive oil traces dating back 8,000 years found in Israel
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Olive oil traces dating back 8,000 years found in Israel

Clay sherds uncovered in Lower Galilee may mark oldest evidence for use of oil in entire Middle East

One of the clay pots reconstructed from sherds found at the site near En Zippori at the Lower Galilee. (Courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority)
One of the clay pots reconstructed from sherds found at the site near En Zippori at the Lower Galilee. (Courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority)

Olive oil was used in the Land of Israel as early as 8,000 years ago, archaeologists working at an antiquities site in the Lower Galilee said Wednesday, heralding the earliest evidence for use of the staple in the country and possibly the entire Middle East.

The findings by an Israeli team were published recently in the Israel Journal of Plant Sciences and announced Wednesday.

Tests of potsherds, some dating back to 5,800 BCE, found in 2011-2013 during a salvage excavation ahead of the widening of Road 79, showed traces of olive oil remarkably similar to modern versions, researchers said.

Ianir Milevski and Nimrod Getzov of the Israel Antiquities Authority methodically sampled pottery vessels found in the excavation at Ein Zippori in the Lower Galilee in order to ascertain what was stored in them and how they were used by the site’s ancient inhabitants.

“Although it is impossible to say for sure, this might be an olive species that was domesticated and joined grain and legumes – the other kinds of field crops that we know were grown then. Those crops are known from at least 2,000 years prior to the settlement at Ein Zippori. With the adoption of olive oil the basic Mediterranean diet was complete. From ancient times to the present, the Mediterranean economy has been based on high quality olive oil, grain and must, the three crops frequently mentioned in the Bible,” they said in a statement.

Their tests, conducted with Dvory Namdar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Institute of Earth Sciences, revealed that the pottery dating to the Early Chalcolithic period contained olive oil.

A comparison of the results of the extraction from the archaeological sherds with those of modern, one-year-old oil, showed a strong resemblance between the two, indicating a particularly high level of preservation of the ancient material, which had survived close to its original composition for almost 8,000 years.

Of the 20 pottery vessels sampled, two were found to be particularly ancient, dating to approximately 5,800 BCE.

A clay pot from the Early Chalcolithic period as found on site at En Zippori (Courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority)
A clay pot from the Early Chalcolithic period as found on site at Ein Zippori (Courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority)

The researchers said the findings went hand in hand with recent finds at Kfar Samir, a 7,700-year-old site now underwater off the coast of Haifa, where the oldest evidence of olive oil production was discovered.

“Now at Zippori, evidence has been found for the first time of the use of olive oil. Together with the Kfar Samir discovery, this is the earliest evidence of olive oil production in the country, and possibly the entire Levant (the Mediterranean basin),” the researchers said in a statement.

The discovery is apparently timed for the start of the holiday of Hanukkah, which Jewish tradition holds marks the second-century BCE re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and the miracle of a one-day supply of olive oil used to light a ceremonial menorah lasting for eight days.

Milevski said the find, dating from 5,000 years before the Hanukkah story, did not supply a definite clue as to whether the oil was used for consumption, lighting, or both. “We found two large vessels and another small one; all were probably only used to store the oil. What it was used for we can only guess.”

Small clay candles, flat bowls filled with oil in which a wick was placed and lit, “date from later periods,” he added.

The society using the oil was pre-Jewish and practiced a religion revolving around the worship of fertility. “We have no writing during that period so we know little about them. We do not know what language they spoke but we assume it was an early Semitic language, from which Babylonian and Akkadian evolved and later also Hebrew and Arabic,” Milevski said.

Milevski said that on the same site the archaeologists found stone palettes with engravings of schematic female figures with animals around them. “In the same site we also found bones from the limbs of large animals engraved with images of eyes, trees and triangles symbolizing the female sex,” he said.

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