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Specializing in Private Tours of Israel and Israel's Lesser Known Tourist Attractions, the Gems. 

Olive Culture in Ancient Israel

by David Eitam 

David Eitam is an archeologist who specialized in ancient industries of the Holy Land. 


The olive tree and its oil have been major components in the culture and rituals of Ancient Israel and the economy of its inhabitants throughout history. Its prominent status is revealed by numerous verses in the Old Testament, the Mishnah and the Talmud.


The olive tree served as a symbol of beauty (Isaiah 11, 16), freshness and fertility "your sons are like shoots of olive around your table" (Psalms). In the Yotam fable the olive tree was the first to be chosen as a king (Judges 9,8). The Holy Land and the olive tree are one "land of olive and oil" (Deut 8, 8). Contrary to the vineyard and its grapes, the attributes of the olive tree are not widespread among the toponymies of ancient Israel. The reason for this is merely that "olive trees will be [and indeed were] growing everywhere" (Deut 28, 40).


The olive was a great necessity for man’s existence. The fruit and its oil were major diet constituents. Descriptions of ritual offerings and sacrifices in the Bible reveal that this was the most frequent use, as is indicated in the Talmud and the Mishnah. The most prevalent individual (daily!) meal, five different baked or unbaked menus Leviticus 2:4, 5, - 14; 15 contained grain or flour mixed, or smeared with oil (proportion 3:1 Ezekiel 45,14).


The cultivated olive was forbidden to be cut because of its economical importance, as documented in many regulations for the protection of the trees "Rabbi Meir said: every tree that does not bear fruit except the olive and the fig [may be cut]" (Mishnah Kila'im 6, 5). However, wild olive trees were commonly used as wood for building, in the ancient periods.


The first and only conclusive evidence for the preliminary production of olive oil from wild olive trees dates to the Neolithic Pottery period, the sixth millennium BCE. A basin dug in a clay layer in the seashore off Mt. Carmel, was found full of olive pits and organic material. It seems that the oil was produced there in an ancient, traditional method called "Shemen Rahutz" (ancient Hebrew) or "Zeit Taphakh" (Palestinian Arabic). In addition to this botanic evidence of olive pits, dozens of uniform special installations cut in the rock surface proved the existence of advanced preliminary oil production.


Olive trees were cultivated in Israel during the 4th millenium BC. Permanent small villages based on mixed economy of herd growing and agriculture existed in the Mediterranean regions of the country, Golan and Samaria Hills.


With the beginning of urbanization and population growth, in the beginning of the third millennium BC horticulture expanded and developed. The strength of the population and the improvement of metal axes enabled the forests in the central mountain region to be cut. This allowed for preparation of areas for olive groves and cultivated vine that was probably exported from Anatolia.

Despite the fact that oil and wine could technically be produced in the same simple installation, special installations for each purpose were carved side by side on site from the Early Bronze period (2800 BC).


There is little Industrial archaeological evidence for a flourishing olive culture during the Canaanite period (this does not preclude the fact that such an olive culture may have existed). Only a dozen installations and some ceramic vessels with spouts for oil separations have been identified in archaeological context.


Olives were crushed by rolling an elliptic stone back and forth, or by treading by foot while wearing wooden shoes as hinted in some verses of the old testament "you will trod olive and will not anoint by oil."


The implementation of the first type of mechanic tool using a beam that acted as a lever dates to around 1500 BC. The proof for oil production installations using such a tool exists in the finding of dozens of such installations in Ras Shamra the town kingdom of Ugarit, but not in Israel.

During the ninth to the seventh centuries BC, the oil industry become a mass production industry, in the Kingdoms of Israel, Judea, as well as Ekron, as proved by hundreds of typical and unique oil presses with a central collection vat.


In the Iron Age II great improvements were made in the manufacturing process as well as in organization. A complex including two presses and a crushing basin operated by a roller was introduced. In the Kingdom of Israel industrial villages for the production of oil (probably under royal auspices), were founded. These in dozens of presses. The two examples od such sites that were found are the Kla’ and Khirbet Khadash sites.


In the provincial towns in the hill country and mountain region of Judea, industrial areas become part of urban planning (as in Tel Beit Mirsim, Tel Beit Shemesh and Tel Batash and Tel en Nasbeh and in Bethel). Royal officials from King David's court hint at such a royal economy: "Khanan from Gader who was responsible for the cultivation of olive groves and Yoash, who was in charge of the production and storage of olive oil" (Chronicles, 27, 27).


The oil industry in Tel Miqune, (Philistine Ekron) in the seventh century BC, was probably established and operated by the Assyrians. It was an industrial center of unprecedented strength in the ancient Middle East. More than 100 oil presses were found there, mainly on the surface of the mound. Since the findings were mainly on the mound, we can safely triple the number of oileries that were most likely operating in the seventh century. Private manufacture by small farmers and affluent ones who owned big estates (Samuel II, 17, 27) also continued to exist.


Surprisingly, the Galilee region did not share in mass production during the biblical period. Only 14 oil presses (compared to hundreds in Samaria and Judea) dated to the tenth to eighth century BCE were found. The improved installation with peripheral collecting vat was brought by the Phoenicians to their colony (Tel Shiqmona). This colony, was the administrative, (and also industrial), royal center of the "Land of Kavool", which was given by King Solomon to King Khiram of Tyre (Zor in Hebrew).


During the third century BCE the oil production center in the Judean Hills moved to the Sidoniet colony of Maresha , where 18 oil press caves were carved in the soft limestone around the city. Oil production with mill (mortarium in Latin), one orbe and improved lever and three weights press (1500 kg weight) indicate the technological "revolution" of the Hellenistic era.


Peak oil production in Israel was, no doubt, during the Byzantine period in the fourth and fifth centuries AD. The geographical distribution of olive culture was widespread in the Mediterranean regions of the country from the slopes of Mount Hermon to the Gaza strip and westward to the northern highlands of the Negev Mount and the Byzantine Nabatien sites to the far end of the 'Arava Valley.


The introduction of new techniques such as the implementation of the screw in the first century AD, enabled multiplying the capacity of oil production operating one oilery – oil press. It included two presses and one mill. The social and political structure of the country dictates that most of the hundreds of oil presses were mainly owned by the private sector.

Conservative use of techniques over long periods, combined with regional diversity reveals a vast variety of installations according to the nature of the people in the region, internal and overseas connections and their political history.


Areas like Phoenicia (Upper Galilee) and Judea, which were characterized by the deeply rooted rural population shows slow changes in the types of installations. The lever and weights press, were exclusively confined to the Upper Galilee.


A direct screw press followed the southern Judean lever and weights press, in the Byzantine period. Both generally had a central collecting vat. Jews from Judea rapidly inhabited the Golan in the fourth century AD and indeed all the types of presses among the 100 oileries – oil presses adopted the northern type mill and the direct screw press.


In Jerusalem as a cosmopolitan metropolis, numerous varieties of devices were adapted from all over the ancient world. The oil presses of Phoenicia influencedÄ Roman installations in North Africa, Italy and the Aegean. However, the date of invention and origin of the crushing mill, the dating of first use of the screw in the Levant during the Roman period and other mutual influences must still be studied.




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