Olive trees have always been related to the Mediterranean area. According to archaeological and historical research studies, the olive tree is part of the indigenous flora of Mediterranean countries and researchers confirm its presence for, at least, the latest 5000 years (Braudel:1985, Psilakis-Kastanas:2003).
As expected, the first olive trees were not intentionally planted. Wild olive tree was the first of the kind and can still be located in some places of the Mediterranean, including Crete (Psilakis-Kastanas:2003)1 .
However, evidence shows that, quite soon, the need appeared for the population to control the cultivation of olive trees; there is a clear evidence of the fact that olives and olive oil – the products which come from olive trees – had already become part of people’s diet.
Crete is one of the first potential regions where locals found ways to domesticate the wild olive tree during the prehistoric period (Faure:1973).
In the region of Kolymvari and at the village “Ano Vouves”, stands one of the oldest domesticated olive trees, the “Monumental Οlive Τree of Vouves”. It is considered one of the oldest olive trees in the world with an aproximate age of at least 2500 years.
Archaeological findings confirm the fact that the great first Cretan civilization, the Minoans, not only was based on agricultural economy, but also had broad commercial relations in the East Mediterranean based on its agricultural products (Treuil-Darcque-Poursat-Touchais:1989). One of the most important products traded was olive oil. Generally, the cultivation and processing of olive trees is shown to be a main occupation during the Minoan period in Crete, proof provided by smashed olive seeds, ancient kinds of lamps using olive oil, vast ceramic jars where olive oil was stored etc. (Sakellarakis:1988).
However, olives and olive oil was not just a means of survival or economical transactions. They were used, as well, in other cultural activities, apart from nutrition, pointing out its great importance for Cretan culture and way of living. One of them was in the worship2 of their gods and goddesses. Another was the conscientiousness of the dead. Often, olive seeds have been found next to the dead in Minoan graves, in order to be used in life after death. Moreover, combining the worshiping character of the olive tree with their artistic abilities, Minoans have passed on to us great mural paintings portraying the holy tree either by itself or next to worshiping symbols (Psilakis-Kastanas:2003).
Moving on to the Mycenaean Period, olive oil is proved to be part of many activities not only for the local population, but also for the broader population of southern Greece. The decoded writing of Mycenaeans and the new scientific methods of analyzing remainders in amhporas (storage vessels) confirms the widespread use of olive oil, which seemed obvious from earlier archaeological excavations: Cretans had developed methods of storing olive oil and, in addition, they used it broadly when cooking vegetables, legumes or meat (Tzedakis-Martlew:1999). Moreover, olive oil is mentioned as a product for cosmetics or as a way of honoring gods (Psilakis-Kastanas:2003).
There is no doubt that, during the centuries, olive tree products kept playing their role in the life and economy of Mediterranean, as well as Greek and Cretan population. The growing transactions of agricultural products among the countries surounding the Mediteranean sea became even more intense during the great empires’ periods. The Roman Empire promoted monetary trade and agricultural products became a means of wealth accumulation (Alfoldy:1984). It was then that olive oil became a product of wider exportation in places out of the Mediterranean sea. Moreover, the growing urban population of those years demanded more imports, in order to prevent a potential lack of olive oil for the citizens of towns or of Rome itself. The same goes for the following Byzantine Empire. In its capital, Constantinople, olive oil was transferred in huge amphoras by ships. The broad use of olive oil in nutrition, illumination or even cosmetics was the reason of oil shortage from time to time, which resulted in occasional prohibition of olive oil exports (Psilakis-Kastanas:2003).
Moreover, during the Byzantine Period, Christian religion had already become widespread. It was then that olive oil started to be used in Christian masses and was, once more, a product related to god worship. Baptism, confirmation and extreme unction are three of the most typical Christian sacraments, in which olive oil has a domain role.
Crete remained an important olive oil production region through those centuries. However, during the latest Venetian Period (17th century), exports became more systematic, due to the organization of trading methods adopted by the Venetian state. Olive oil and wine were the leading exported products of the island (Detorakis:1990). During the 19th century, in addition to the existing uses of olive tree products, came the development of soap industry. In fact, one could say that the transition to the dominance of olive oil production in Crete has its foundation on the 19th century. The exclusive use of olive oil in Crete combined with a growing economy based on products and exports of olive oil, resulted in a vast increase of olive groves on the island (Psilakis-Kastanas:2003, Detorakis:1990). Cretans have been called to regularize what they did for the latest five millenniums: to grow olive trees and produce olive oil.
• Alfoldy G., Romische Sozialgeschichte, Wiesbaden, 1984.
• Braudel F., Coarelli F., Aymard M., La Mediterranee, l’ espace et l’ histoire, Flammarion, 1985.
• Detorakis T., Istoria tis Kritis, 1990.
• Faure P., La vie quotidienne en Crete au temps de Minos, Hachette, 1973.
• Platon N., Zakros, To neon minoikon anaktoron, En Athinais Arxaiologiki Etaireia, 1974.
• Psilakis N.& M., Kastanas I., O politismos tis elias-To elaiolado, Karmanor, 2003.
• Sakellarakis G.& E., “Neolithiki kai Minoiki Kriti” in Panagiotakis N. M., Kriti, Istoria kai Politismos, v. A, 1988.
• Treuil R., Darcque P., Poursat J.-Cl., Touchais G., Les civilizations egeennes du Neolithique et de l’ Age du Bronze, Presses Universitaires de France, 1989.
• Tzedakis G., Martlew H., Minoiton kai Mikinaion Gefsis, 1999.
1 Terra Creta had the chance to offer to the participants of Terra Creta’s International Conference in October 2012, a token of gratitude with a wooden box, which was decorated by a gilded leaf of wild olive tree from the region of Kolymvari.
2 A quite interesting archaeological finding and typical example as regards the connection of olive tree products to religion is the following: during the 1970s in eastern Crete the archaeologist N. Platon with his team excavated a ceramic jar, which contained olives, from the bottom of a well. Taking in consideration the surrounding data, the team concluded that the olives were an offering to a goddess of Earth, who was believed to be responsible for a great earthquake, which later destroyed the palace in the specific area. Olives were offered in the bottom of the well, as a way to be closer to the center of earth, where earthquakes came from (Platon:1974).