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Olives and People, Past and Present September 5, 2008


Anagnostis Agelarakis (right) and colleague Kostas Zacharakis (left) emerge from the Cave of Zeus, where myth says the infant god was hidden, near the Northern Mylopotamos olive-growing domain. (Courtesy Anagnostis Agelarakis)

Some of ARCHAEOLOGY's most interesting articles over the past few years have been about the research of Adelphi University's Anagnostis Agelarakis. A physical anthropologist with human remains as his specialty, Agelarakis is a first-class scientist yet doesn't lose sight of the fact that the bones he studies were once part of living human beings. Readers of the magazine and website may recall "Fallen Heroes" (March/April 2000), a preview of the study of bones from a public grave in Athens from the Peloponnesian War; "Warriors of Paros" (January/February 2005), an examination of clues from soldiers' burials to the rise of Classical Greek city-states; and "Artful Surgery" (March/April 2006), about evidence of a skilled surgeon who practiced centuries before Hippocrates.


In addition to his university career, Agelarakis has, with his wife, started producing olive oil near Rethymno on Crete. Their main product is a first cold pressing premium extra virgin olive oil made from olives grown on the slopes of mount Ida in their Northern Mylopotamos (Mill River) olive groves.

Michelle Lessard asked Agelarakis about the use of olives and olive oil in antiquity, ancient and traditional cultivation methods, and olives and human nutrition and health.

Today, many people consider olive oil a health food. Did the ancient Greeks view it in a nutritional sense or was it valued simply for flavor or other properties?
It was not only considered as a health product but something that had in essence a divine power embedded in it--defined in a pragmatic way not in a occult or abstract way. It was a gift of the goddess Athena to the Athenians, therefore, it had the emblematic presence of the goddess.

So is that why it was used in the Olympic Games to anoint the athletes?
Absolutely. It was not only the Olympic Games, but whenever somebody would be in the gymnasium or the palaestra they used to apply olive oil on their body surfaces. They had a particular type of scraper (strigil) that they used to then collect all the olive oil and sweat and so on that had accumulated on their skin surface. We find these when we excavate human burials. They are a typical sort of burial gift, mostly for men but we also sometimes find them with women.

How was it used for a food product?
It was considered a necessary item for daily sustenance. It was used to cook with and also used in the raw form in a salad dressing--a salad dressing of the ancient Greeks involved olive oil, of course extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, sea salt, and some honey and that then was shaken well, and it was drizzled over salads that they were preparing for eating.

It was also used as a perfume base. Was this perfume solely for wealthier Greeks or was it used more commonly, by all levels of society?
Olive oil was used as a base for making perfumes and such because it has the tendency to stay on the human skin for quite some time because it is fat soluble, lipophile as the ancients would say. It was obviously used more often by an elite--those that were more affluent--but it wasn't foreign or unattainable by the people that comprised the society. Anywhere we look or we read in any comedy or any references or whatever it had a predominant place in daily lives. For example in the play Pluto by Aristophanes it says, the container is full of white flour, the wine jar is run over with great wine, and the tank is full of oil, the vials with perfumes.


According to myth, the Athenians chose Athena instead of Poseidon as their patron deity after she offered them the olive tree. (Courtesy Anagnostis Agelarakis)

What were ancient olive presses like; are they similar to modern olive presses?
You'd be surprised. If you go to any village that has either a private or a communal olive press that lets you go in, it smells the same way as it would have in antiquity, and it uses the same raw materials as they used then for the grinding stone, and you have the wooden beams that support the mechanism. It was moved by humans or by domestic animals or by water flow or the action of wind power. Nowadays there are electrically powered olive presses. The high-tech ones don't press the olives any more, they just centrifuge them and whatever oil tears out of the olives is the wonderful material we know as first pressing extra virgin olive oil. You still have electrical machines that press the olives, but those modern companies on the cutting edge now centrifuge. They do this because by not pressing the olives through stones you don't increase the temperature. You can find historical landmarks and even some of them that are still in use that press by stone, and supposedly they consider this to be a very gourmet thing, but in essence it is not because it starts the fermentation process of the olives and their pulp. In a centrifuge, it is so much better because an important stage of producing extra virgin olive oil is to extract it with a process that does not increase the temperature. You may say increase it in what way? Well, friction during the pressing produces "junk" energy that is heat. In pressing the olives the temperature has to be less than 27 degrees centigrade as a parameter of producing extra virgin olive oil, and even several degrees below that is better. By centrifugal action we may produce a much better product. It will still taste the same but it will have more of the vitamins and it will have more of the phyto-antioxidants.

Did olive oil have any medicinal uses in ancient Greece?
Hippocrates uses olive oil-based ointments for all kinds of uses and for treating trauma, scratches, wounds, and concussions that are not too deeply penetrating; it was considered to have healing power. In essence, it does because it contains the vital antioxidants scalene, flavonoids, and polyphenols at a minimum. Also, it has Omega components such as Omega 9, Vitamin A, Vitamin K, and traces of Vitamin C. It has Vitamin E, as well, which is in itself an antioxidant, so it has the ability to enhance and repair components of our skin. It is very important for our skin; our skin is the largest organ that we have. It also has in it essential amino acids that are absolutely necessary for a good function of the human gut, the alimentary tract, and the human body at large. Basically, it is a wonderful material that is completely natural. Remember, olive oil is the only vital oil from plants that you can eat raw and untreated. Obviously, being untreated of course it has no chemical additives; it hasn't been manipulated in any sort of process that would adulterate it. It is really a gift from nature if not of the gods as the ancients firmly believed.

How about ancient olive harvesting? The trees clearly produce many olives at a time. Would one family of farmers collect one group or would the town gather and help each other?
Very good question. In antiquity, most of the time in all city-states, individual families had a lot of land, some of which was available for the cultivation of cereals like wheat and barley, and onions and garlic, and some vegetables. Some of the land was allocated for the cultivation of the grape for wine, primarily, and of course the olive trees, and then other fruit trees like the fig were planted. If you look at ethnographic records in Greece 200 years ago, 120 years ago, 60 years ago, 40 years ago, and even now families usually own maybe 20, 30, 40 olive trees in small lots, and there are other families obviously that own much more because they are richer, more affluent, trade and commerce having allowed them to reach another economic standing. Usually someone who had 50 olive trees, 200 olive trees, was considered to have had quite an economic standing in ancient times. The olives are collected by hand; that's the best way to do it because in that way you do not damage the tree and you have the chance to not even damage the olives by hitting them with a stick or as they fall down or things like that. You can collect the olives when they are green turning a little purplish, that is early in the season, or you can collect them later when they are already ripe, so there isn't really a particular time when you can collect them. There may be a range of two or three months that you may carry out such a collection process.

So one family would be able to handle it all?
One family could handle it all, correct. They could have people help them who belonged to the family--relations by blood or by marriage--or people that they had helped to collect their olives. These neighbors now were helping this household to pick them. In addition, they had slave labor that was acquired as captives of warfare or that kind of thing in ancient times.


Olives in a Northern Mylopotamos grove (Courtesy Anagnostis Agelarakis)

What about festivals? Were there any ceremonies or festivals that prominently featured the olive in ancient times?
Yes there were festivals where olive oil was used. It was used in conferring messages to the deities and for the cult of the ancestors, the libations, for example, that were offered to the dead. Very regularly, there were festivities and in memoriam ceremonies. They all used vases of olive oil and wine, so it was something used for carrying out offerings to the gods. Many of these liturgies were mysteries, so we don't know the details, but we do know some things. Don't forget that in the Olympic Games the ultimate prize is a wreath of an olive branch. Also, those that win the games--and the Panathenaic Games in Athens--get quantities of olive oil to take with them as a prize.

Olive trees are able to grow in slightly more arid conditions than many other food crops. Did that help it become a prevalent crop? Were there other advantages to the olive tree?
Well the area of Greece, particularly Crete, is a typical location where you have what is called a chaparral environment or biome. A biome is an environment identified by the plant species that occupy it, as we say tropical rain forest or temperate rain forest or taiga. The olive tree is a drought resistant, very well adapted tree for such an environment so it can withstand quite some time without rainfall or irrigation; therefore, it is in essence independent of the need of many amenities. For example, one would conceive that with no irrigation needed, you don't need to really fertilize it; it goes through its own cycle, every other year it produces more flowers that turn into olives and therefore the potential for us to extract more olive oil. It is very resilient. Let's say there is a fire, it has the ability to grow back. Let's say someone wanted to cut it down to damage the property of an ancient city--as sometimes during war it was threatened "come out and fight or we are going to destroy your cereals, olive trees, and vineyards." It's very tough to cut it down; you can't do it that easily, and even if you cut it down it has the wonderful ability to regenerate itself and in a few years there it is again growing and producing olives. It is absolutely wonderful as a plant species. Further, its dead branches or segments of its body may be removed and used for fuel. Even today the majority of the people in the historic villages of Crete prefer to cook with olive tree dead branches or stumps because it burns slowly; it doesn't flash up in fire, and therefore they are following an ancient tradition that we call "slow food cooking." It's healthier.

And today?
Unfortunately, today many countries and companies around the Mediterranean want to produce high volumes of olive oil, by intensive agricultural means and irrigation. But by irrigating the olives, for example, they're doing something unnatural. Of course the olives will be fatter, but they won't taste the same as olives from a tree that produced olives the ancient traditional way of no irrigation. So, if you take olive oil from an olive grove that is not irrigated it has another fragrance, it has another aroma, it feels different, it is more potent, it has a wonderful taste whereas the ones that are irrigated they give you a flatter taste. We need to consider those issues today, because they are opposite from what was done in antiquity. Irrigation isn't necessarily a harmless operation. Its intensive application depletes the aquifers in the Mediterranean area. The climate is getting drier, the water level is dropping, and the aquifers are getting exhausted, so we always advocate against irrigation.

Are there other aspects of modern olive cultivation that you believe are harmful compared to traditional or ancient practices?
Yes, we also always advocate against the production of what we call monocultures. You see, in some places in the Mediterranean there are thousands and thousands of olive trees one after another all in a row--miles and miles of them--they look good, but you have a monoculture. Anytime you have a monoculture you will have also the presence of pests, of fungi, of bacteria, of diseases, of vermin, and of the red fly, which attacks the flower and later the actual olive while it is still green and unripe. However, if you do it in ancient or traditional ways, next to an olive tree you will have an almond tree, you will retain a bush that makes blackberries, you will have oregano and thyme, you will have a lemon tree, you will have some vines that make grapes, and therefore you don't have a monoculture--no need to spray with insecticides or pesticides of any kind and therefore what a wonderful product you get out. Like wine that absorbs different fragrances and other materials and such from its surrounding environment the olive is affected by its surroundings. The olives that we get the olive oil from in that particular area of Crete called Mylopotamos in Rethymnon have an fruity aftertaste like lemon and almond.


Northern Mylopotamos olive groves around the ancient site of Eleutherna with Mount Ida rising in the background (Courtesy Anagnostis Agelarakis)

A lot of the times the old way isn't necessarily the bad way.
Not at all. We have a tendency to think that we know everything today and we discard everything that is ancient and old. It is important that we respect and be sensitive to trans-generational wisdom. The things that the ancients passed onto us, they are not to be discarded, they are to be studied, they are to be evaluated, they are to be put in good use, if they are good because usually they were environmentally friendly. They didn't require any artificial materials, they didn't involve any additives or anything that may be harmful to our health, and to the larger environment that supports us, the larger ecological domain. We are tied into the environment directly and indirectly and therefore we observe and respect trans-generational wisdom--concerning the physical environment and human ecology. Both the non-biotic and the biotic components of the environment are so important for our produce. Temperature, sunlight penetration, rainfall and humidity, elevation from sea level, the climate in general are uniquely important! Also, talking to the older people in the area and getting their point of view and asking for their experiences and their knowledge is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to neglect and thus lose that these days. So we're here, we're here to preserve it; we care to respect it; we're here to transfer it to the younger generation--people like you--like my students here. They need to know of that and they need to consider the values that such information may present instead of dismissing it without even evaluating it.

Have you ever encountered olive remains at Eleutherna or on your previous digs?
Yes, absolutely. We have recovered some of the funerary meals, food remains preserved where they were deposited. At Eleutherna, we have found olives, the pits of the olives, of course, and remnants of grapes and such that were offerings to people that were buried there. Along with floral offerings are faunal animal offerings that were used for preparing a last meal for the memory or the honor of those who passed on. Decorated vases in ceramic and bronze and all the other materials were deposited there in what I call a time capsule that dates back to 900 to 700 B.C.

What sorts of tools were used for the cultivation of the olives? Clearly not a great deal of work was required for the ancient methods, but would there still be pruning of the olive trees?
You need a little bit of pruning to guide the tree to have it at an appropriate height. People were using special ladders, even today, they take the trunk of a tree that is a foot or a little less than a foot in diameter and they carve in it small indents as steps, and they have a quick ladder. They can go a few steps on it, use a stick to hit the very high branches and knock down the olives, or even grab them by hand. It is easier to move than a typical modern ladder with long sides and steps in between because it is a cylinder that you can place very easily between branches that would otherwise block your way or make it unsteady. Also they used typical agricultural tools and materials to attend to the needs of the tree, especially when it is young and may be vulnerable to goats or such domesticates that may feed on it.

Are they similar to modern implements or are the monocrops making such tools obsolete?
As I was telling you before, in those other areas where they have thousands of olive trees one after the other, in those monocultures, they use machines to go and shake down the trees so the olives fall down. In the olive groves that are done the traditional way you cannot put machinery or heavy machinery because you have almond trees, you have fig trees, you have vines, you have bushes that are then left there by design, so you have to do things by hand. I prefer always the harvesting of olives by hand as much as possible. That is more expensive, granted, but it is better for the environment. First of all don't forget that these machines they burn diesel; we don't like diesel fumes or diesel leaks or the tracks of those heavy machinery to be all over in an olive grove that we consider to be almost a sacred sort of environment.