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Archaeologists Discover Ancient Olive Oil in Italy

The discovery pushes the time table for olive oil production in Italy back more than 700 years earlier than previously thought.

Credit: Polo Regionale di Siracusa per i siti e musei archeologici Museo Paolo Orsi
Jun. 1, 2018
By Daniel Dawson
Credit: Polo Regionale di Siracusa per i siti e musei archeologici Museo Paolo Orsi

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A team of researchers from the University of South Florida has dis­cov­ered olive oil residue on pot­sherds dating back to the Bronze Age.

The sherds were dis­cov­ered by Italian archae­ol­o­gist Giuseppe Voza, while he was exca­vat­ing a site in Sicily back in the 1990s. Two decades later, con­ser­va­tors from the Archaeological Museum of Siracusa recon­structed the pot.

The results obtained with the three sam­ples from Castelluccio become the first chem­i­cal evi­dence of the oldest olive oil in Italian pre­his­tory, push­ing back the hands of the clock for the sys­tem­atic olive oil pro­duc­tion by at least 700 years.- Davide Tanasi, University of South Florida

Davide Tanasi, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of his­tory at the University of South Florida, noticed that the pot had an unusual shape and decided to run residue tests on its inte­rior to deter­mine its pur­pose.

“The shape of this stor­age con­tainer and the nearby septum was like noth­ing else Voza found at the site in Castelluccio,” Tanasi said.

“It had the sig­na­ture of Sicilian table­ware dated to the end of the third and begin­ning of the second mil­len­nium BCE. We wanted to learn how it was used, so we con­ducted chem­i­cal analy­sis on organic residues found inside.”

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The recon­structed pot, along with two other sam­ples thought to have been used for a related pur­pose, were found with other cook­ing imple­ments at the site in the hilly, south­east­ern region of Sicily. The site is widely con­sid­ered a type-site in archae­o­log­i­cal lit­er­a­ture, mean­ing it is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the cul­ture of a cer­tain time and people.

Both this con­text and pecu­liar shape of the ves­sels made Tanasi and his team eager to figure out what might have been stored within them.

The team of archae­ol­o­gists used gas chro­matog­ra­phy and mass spec­trom­e­try to deter­mine the chem­i­cal sig­na­tures of the organic residues found on all three of the sam­ples. The team then deter­mined the age of the pot­sherds using nuclear mag­netic res­o­nance test­ing.

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The results of the first two tests showed oleic and linoleic acids, both of which are sig­na­tures of olive oil, were found in the organic residue. The nuclear mag­netic res­o­nance test­ing deter­mined that the sherds were from the early Bronze Age.

“The results obtained with the three sam­ples from Castelluccio become the first chem­i­cal evi­dence of the oldest olive oil in Italian pre­his­tory, push­ing back the hands of the clock for the sys­tem­atic olive oil pro­duc­tion by at least 700 years,” Tanasi said.

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Previously, the oldest iden­ti­fied chem­i­cal sig­na­tures of olive oil in Italy were dis­cov­ered on stor­age jars in Cosenza and Lecce in south­ern Italy, and dated back to the twelfth and eleventh cen­tury BCE, respec­tively.

Chemical sig­na­tures of olive oil dating back to the second and third mil­len­nium BCE have also been iden­ti­fied on sam­ples of pot­sherds from Crete. However, evi­dence of even older olive oil pro­duc­tion in the Mediterranean has been found by more tra­di­tional archae­o­log­i­cal meth­ods, accord­ing to Tanasi.

“The ear­li­est olive cul­ti­va­tion and olive oil pro­duc­tion in the Mediterranean, dating back to the Copper Age for some case stud­ies in Israel, is usu­ally well doc­u­mented just from archae­o­log­i­cal [meth­ods] — mills and olive press­ing ves­sels — and archaeob­otan­i­cal per­spec­tives: pollen, olives, wood and leaves,” he said.

The results from the study were pub­lished ear­lier this month in the jour­nal Analytical Methods.