The Land of Milk and Olives?

Olive oil was a major Holy Land staple far earlier than previously thought

View of Tell es-Safi, Biblical Gath.  Credit: Aren Maeir

A  study published in the journal Palestine Exploration Quarterly has shown that large-scale olive oil production began in the land of Canaan much earlier than previously thought and that the competing interests of Iron Age Philistia and Judah were key to driving the industry’s growth. A joint project of Bar Ilan University in Israel and the University of Kentucky discovered evidence of olive oil production at Philistine Gath (modern Tell es-Safi) dating back to the 11th century B.C.E., proving that the industry existed in Philistia since at least the beginning of the Iron Age.

Gath, one of the largest cities in the southern Levant, appears to have held a monopoly on that production during the early Iron Age. That monopoly ended, however, when the city was destroyed by King Hazael of Aram Damascus (c. 830 B.C.E.). This opened the market for competitors, including the Kingdom of Judah, as evidenced by new finds from the site of Tell Beth Shemesh. Recent salvage excavations have shown that Beth Shemesh remained a thriving agricultural town even after the Assyrian campaign of 701 B.C.E. Excavations revealed more than a dozen olive presses used to produce oil at an industrial scale.

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Scholars previously assumed that large-scale olive oil production began only during the late eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E., with the industry centered at the Philistine city of Ekron and Judah lacking any major production centers. The discovery of the Beth Shemesh olive presses, however, demonstrates that Judah did produce large quantities of oil, thereby establishing itself as a key player in the market.

According to Aren Maeir, director of the Gath excavation, the idea that olive oil production only began in the eighth century B.C.E. did not make sense. Olive trees readily grow across the Mediterranean and evidence suggests that olive cultivation in the southern Levant began as early as the Neolithic period (c. 8500–4300 B.C.E.). Similarly, since olive oil was already produced at large scales across the ancient Near East, it was almost certainly produced in the southern Levant as well.

While many questions remains, the new study provides important insights into the history of olive oil production in the southern Levant, especially its industrial beginnings in Philistia. It also reveals the Kingdom of Judah’s continued economic and cultural strength during and after the time of King Hezekiah.


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Olives for Ancient Eating
by: Jonathan Laden
At the Hishulei Carmel excavation site under the Mediterranean sea, researchers have found two oval stone structures containing thousands of well-preserved olive pits. Because the pits were mostly whole, not crushed as were the pits found at the olive oil production site of Kfar Samir from 7,000 years ago, the researchers believe the olives at Hishulei Carmel were pickled for eating.

Biblical Archaeology 101: The Ancient Diet of Roman Palestine
by: Susan Weingarten
What did people eat in Roman Palestine? Milk and honey? Olive oil and wine? Food historian Susan Weingarten takes readers on a culinary adventure through historical and archaeological remains to reconstruct the diet of the average person in Roman Palestine.

Is the Cultic Installation at Dan Really an Olive Press?
by: Suzanne F. Singer
In an article in the September/October 1981 issue of BAR (“The Remarkable Discoveries at Tel Dan,” BAR 07:05), John Laughlin identified an unusual installation at Tel Dan, in northern Israel, as an Israelite cult installation associated with a water libation ceremony. In explaining the installation as having been used in a religious water libation ceremony, Laughlin adopted the interpretation of Tel Dan’s excavator, Avraham Biran.

Ekron of the Philistines
by: Trude Dothan and Seymour Gitin
The first joint American-Israeli archaeological expedition was conceived on a hot summer’s afternoon in 1980. Seymour Gitin, director of the William F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, and Ernest Frerichs, the Albright president, were having tea with Hebrew University professor Trude Dothan at her home in Jerusalem. We were discussing joint American-Israeli academic programs.

Ekron of the Philistines, Part II: Olive-Oil Suppliers to the World
by: Seymour Gitin
In “Ekron of the Philistines,” BAR 16:01, Trude Dothan and Seymour Gitin introduced us to the rich history of ancient Ekron (modern-day Tel Miqne)—the Philistine city described in Joshua 13:2–3 as part of “the land that yet remains” to be taken by the Israelites. The city, one of the largest Iron Age sites in Israel, lay at a strategic point on the western edge of the Inner Coastal Plain—on the frontier between Philistia and Judah.

Archaeologists Uncover Industrial Olive Press
by: Noah Wiener
Excavations at the Tel Aviv suburb Hod Hasharon uncovered a major olive oil production center from the 6th-8th centuries C.E. Dating to the late Byzantine or early Muslim period, the structure includes mechanisms for pressing olives into oil as well as a system of canals and cisterns to collect the…

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