Scientists Find Earliest Evidence of Olive Oil in Central Europe

Early Celts in the French region of Burgundy imported olive oil from the Mediterranean around 500 BCE, a new study shows. The find is the earliest evidence of olive oil use in Central Europe.

Sep. 19, 2019
By David Stanford

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Archaeologists study­ing early Celtic remains in France have dis­cov­ered traces of olive oil on pot­tery frag­ments dat­ing from around 500 BCE, pro­vid­ing the ear­li­est known evi­dence of olive oil use in Central Europe. Previously, the ear­li­est evi­dence was from the Roman period, sev­eral cen­turies later.

The dis­cov­ery was made while exam­in­ing the remains of 99 ceramic ves­sels from the hill fortress of Mont Lassois in Burgundy, east-cen­tral France. Traces of organic sub­stances were found on the ves­sels, includ­ing beeswax, beer, wine, mil­let, milk and olive oil.

As the sixth cen­tury BCE is the first time that Mediterranean pot­tery was brought to Central Europe in large amounts, I think that it is most prob­a­ble that we found the ear­li­est evi­dence.- Philipp Stockhammer, an archae­ol­o­gist from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

According to the study, which was pub­lished in the sci­en­tific jour­nal Plos One in June, the Celts trav­elled south along the Rhone River to trade with Greek colonies on the French coast, par­tic­u­larly Marseille, bring­ing back a range of Mediterranean goods. These imports included Greek and Italian pot­tery, as well as grape wine and olive oil.

The study was con­ducted by an inter­na­tional team of researchers, led by archae­ol­o­gist Philipp Stockhammer from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München.

See Also: Olive Oil History

At the moment, this is the ear­li­est evi­dence, but we are also one of the first to con­duct such a large-scale study,” Stockhammer told Olive Oil Times.

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However, as the sixth cen­tury BCE is the first time that Mediterranean pot­tery was brought to Central Europe in large amounts, I think that it is most prob­a­ble that we found the ear­li­est evi­dence,” he added.

The early Celts inhab­ited south­ern Germany, north­ern Switzerland and part of east­ern France dur­ing the Early Iron Age. It has long been known that they traded with Mediterranean com­mu­ni­ties, adopt­ing not only their goods but also some of their tra­di­tions, such as wine-feast­ing. What was not known until now was that olive oil was among the for­eign imports.

While the researchers are con­fi­dent that the oil was imported from the Mediterranean coast of France, they still do not know where it was produced.

The imports came via Marseille,” Stockhammer said. But we have imported ves­sels from the south­ern Greek main­land, south­ern Italy and south­ern France, all of them pos­si­ble ori­gins of the olive oil, too.”

Of the 99 ves­sels exam­ined, 16 were imports, while 83 were made locally by the Celts. According to Maxime Rageot from the University of Tübingen, who con­ducted the food residue analy­sis, olive oil was found on both the imports and locally-made ves­sels, sug­gest­ing the Celts actu­ally used the oil.

Rageot used gas chro­matog­ra­phy and GC-mass spec­trom­e­try analy­ses in his work. While such tech­nol­ogy can iden­tify organic sub­stances with some accu­racy, the job is often more dif­fi­cult with older samples.

He told Olive Oil Times that the issue of degra­da­tion, which par­tic­u­larly affects the lipids found in plant oils, means it is dif­fi­cult to deter­mine how wide­spread olive oil use was.

Sorting though the archae­o­log­i­cal remains.

We have only rarely found evi­dence of olive oil in archae­o­log­i­cal con­texts based on organic residues, because the spe­cific mol­e­c­u­lar mark­ers of most plant oils are not very sta­ble over time, and only in good con­texts for lipid preser­va­tion,” he said.

So, it is not yet pos­si­ble to say if olive oil was com­monly imported into cen­tral Europe dur­ing the Early Iron Age or if it was a rare and very pres­ti­gious good restricted to the Celtic elites,” he added.

He said this also poses prob­lems in iden­ti­fy­ing how the oil was used. While most mod­ern con­sumers view olive oil as a food­stuff, ancient cul­tures often found other uses for it.

Stockhammer said that the find­ings do not indi­cate how the oil was used, but it was likely for body embalm­ment; most prob­a­bly not for cooking.”

The study is an impor­tant addi­tion to his­tory of olive oil, show­ing how and when it spread north from the Mediterranean. Relatively speak­ing, the Celts were late in adopt­ing the sub­stance. Archaeologists have found evi­dence of olive oil pro­duc­tion in Israel from around 6,000 BCE, while olives were being gath­ered by Neolithic peo­ples in the eighth mil­len­nium BCE.

Olive use in the Mediterranean goes back deep in his­tory,” Stockhammer said. Although it is dif­fi­cult to say if they just ate olives and when they started pro­duc­ing oil.”

Already in the sec­ond mil­len­nium BCE, we have a large-scale, almost indus­trial, pro­duc­tion of olive oil, espe­cially as a basis for per­fume, in Mycenaean, Greece,” he added.

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