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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