The Egyptian Olive (Olea Europaea Subsp. Europaea) in the Later First Millennium BC: Origins and History Using the Morphometric Analysis of Olive Stones

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Olives grow only in a typical Mediterranean climate (Durand & Flahault 1886; Baldy 1990) and remain today a staple food in the Mediterranean basin. The pickled fruit is used as food, and the oil extracted from its fleshy pulp has culinary uses, but is also used for cosmetics, lubricants, and as a source of light. In the Graeco-Roman civilisation, olive oil and wine were closely associated, because of similarities in their transformation processes and their importance in the economy, including daily life but also trade, religious rites and art. The olive tree has been of significant cultural importance in that region since prehistoric times, and still has symbolic and religious significance today.

Egypt is divided climatically into two provinces: hyperarid and arid. The Mediterranean coast belongs to the latter, with mild winters, hot summers and an annual rainfall ranging from 20 to 200mm (Zahran & Willis 1992: 8), and in its flora, this coast has distinct Mediterranean affinities (Zahran & Willis 1992: xiii). However, the climate is unsuitable for dry cultivation of the olive tree and Egypt lies outside the ecological range of the wild olive, Olea europaea subsp. oleaster (Zohary & Hopf 2000: map 14). The olive must therefore have been introduced from elsewhere, as is endorsed by etymology: its Egyptian name is borrowed from a Semitic language (Meeks 1993). Today, olives are cultivated on a small scale all over the country, and on a larger scale in a few restricted areas (Figure 1). In all cases, their cultivation requires irrigation.


The date of the beginning of oleiculture in Egypt is subject to debate (Serpico & White 2000: 398-9). Although there is evidence for the consumption of olives and possibly of olive oil at least since the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1070 BC), the products may have been imported. In neighbouring Levant, olive use and probably cultivation, if not domestication, are attested much earlier, during the Early Bronze Age (c. 3300-2200 BC) (Liphschitz et al. 1991; Zohary & Hopf 2000: 149). Its cultivation could have been introduced from the Levant to Crete and Greece during the Early Bronze Age, then to southern Italy (Brun 2003: 128). The spread of oleiculture to northern Africa and Spain probably followed the Phoenician expansion (Brun 2003).

To date, the oldest olive remains found in Egypt are charred stones from Thirteenth Dynasty Memphis (Kom el-Rabi'a, c. 1802-1640 BC) (Murray 2000: 610) and from the late Second Intermediate period Avaris in the Nile delta (Tell el-Dab'a, Thanheiser 2004, in press). They probably represent imported fruit from the Eastern Mediterranean (Syro-Palestine), with which Egyptian trade was flourishing. The earliest olive wood identifications date to the New Kingdom (Asensi Amores 2003). Stones, leaves and wood are found regularly from the New Kingdom onward (De Vartavan & Asensi Amores 1997: 183-6). The leaves were used in garlands found in tombs from the New Kingdom, especially in the Theban area (Greiss 1966; Germer 1988, 1989), and the wood was used for the manufacture of coffins (Grosser et al. 1992). Finds from the workers' villages of El-Amarna (Renfrew 1985:188) and Deir el-Medina (Bell 1982:153) attest to their local consumption, although olives must have been an occasional and luxurious food item.

Eastern Mediterranean trade in olives is demonstrated by the find of thousands of olives and olive stones from a Late Bronze Age (late fourteenth century BC) shipwreck at Ulu Burun off the southern coast of Turkey, including a single deposit of more than 2500 stones in a Canaanite jar (Haldane 1993: 352). The ship, which sank during the Eighteenth Dynasty of the New Kingdom, also transported terebinth resin, identified also at the Egyptian New Kingdom site of El-Amarna (Haldane 1993). Iconographic and textual evidence also point toward the cultivation of the olive tree in Egypt during the New Kingdom (Meeks 1993). …