Without the power of archaeology, art and history, today it would be difficult to trace the timeline of olive oil. Its uses, expansion and popularity during ancient eras are known thanks to the surviving art.

The Origins of olive oil

It is assumed that the origin of olive oil dates back to 4000 B.C. by the hands of Armenians and Egyptians, and then of Assyrians and Babylonians. The first archaeological findings regarding the use and importance of oil come from the land of the pharaohs. To the fourteenth century B.C. In the tomb of Tutankhamun, excavations have brought to light some frescoes depicting oil vases and olive branches, lamps powered by oil and olive garlands. Two centuries later, similar frescoes were found in the tomb of Ramses III, the pharaoh who, according to the documents, started the first cultivation of olive trees to offer sacred oil to the god Ra. In Egypt, the oil was used in the most disparate ways. The wealthiest classes also used it for mummifications, aromatic preparations, dermo-cosmetics and well-being of the body in general. A kind of status symbol.

The archaeological findings kept in the houses and Tombs of Mycenae  in the Peloponnese also dates back to the fourteenth century B.C. Olive kernels, olive amphorae and mortars suggest that the oil culture was quite extensive throughout the territory.

The intensification occurred in the fifth century B.C. The “liquid gold”, so called by Homer, in ancient Greece was the protagonist of many sport rituals. The depictions on the aryballos (small vessels to be fastened to wrist and containing oils) show how the wrestlers sprinkled the body with oil before and after a fight. In doing so, they often used special tools. Speaking about sport, the winners of races and competitions were usually crowned by olive wreaths and at the race of the chart, the most prestigious of the Panathenaic Games, the first prize corresponded to 140 amphorae full of olive oil.  

The protection of olive trees at that time was essential. Uprooting a tree meant seeing one’s possessions confiscated or even being killed. This is because in Greek mythology the olive tree was an Athena’s gift to men.

As for use with food, we began to wink at quality. Depending on the town of production there were different amphorae for both shapes and decorations. Athens succeeded as one of the best producers of oil and for the “SOS” shape of its amphorae validated by their authenticity.

Olive oil in Italy

The Greeks spread the oil in the Mediterranean Sea, the Romans expanded its cultivation on all their empire. From 580 B.C. olive oil began to spread from North Africa, Spain, Sicily, and Apulia to Ostia by sea and from here to Rome by way of the Tiber. Of the 50 million amphorae that make up Monte Testaccio, also known as Monte dei Cocci, most of them are olive amphorae. Information on the contents, the name of the exporter, the date of dispatch and the place of origin were found on each amphora. They were precious sources in order to reconstruct the history of Rome’s trade and its oil.

The first classifications of the different types of oil are also attributed to the Romans: from the most valuable, obtained from light green olives, to the waste destined to slaves, deriving from the pressing of the unruly olives.

In the kitchen olive oil was used to season and enhance simple dishes such as polenta and beans or to put leftovers in oil, so that they lasted longer. The ancient Roman legionaries sprinkled their body with oil to protect themselves from cold, to soothe skin irritations and burns. It is estimated that in ancient Rome each inhabitant consumed about two litres of oil per month.

Other archaeological evidence comes from the Etruscan necropolis of Cerveteri and Tarquinia. In the Olive Tomb, 570 B.C., a boiler containing olive pits was found. 

The oldest bottle of oil in the world was found in Herculaneum. Buried from 79 B.C. until 1738, recent studies published in the NPJ Science of Food journal have allowed to verify the molecular identity of the content, unknown for years. Alberto Angela, after one of his special programmes at the MANN stores where the bottle is safeguarded, had the intuition to analyse the thickened compound.

Olive oil in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

From the Fifth century A.D. wars and famines followed one another. Production began to decline and the oil trade stopped. The heat of the Roman era gave way to harsher seasons that pushed the northern populations towards the south of Europe. In some areas of Umbria and Tuscany, temperatures dropped to -19 degrees. The resulting cultivar mix was engraved in the culinary tradition. Seasonings became more popular and butter or lard were preferred to oil. The monks tried to keep the cultivation of olive trees alive, even if they did not push for olive oil for culinary uses, except for the periods of Lent, but above all for solemn rites.

In 1300 they came back to olive oil thanks to the Maritime Republics, especially Venice. The maritime routes of the time of the Romans resumed and olive oil returned to be a political instrument through specific legislations. For transport, some ships were built on purpose to carry 500 barrels of oil on each journey. In 1400, Italy was the first producer of olive oil in the world. (correggere in italiano: “modo”  “mondo”) 

During the Renaissance there was a return of butter and lard in culinary use. The way of cooking changed; it was much spicier to the point of preferring animal fats. The oil was used for frying, especially fried fish, for lighting and for the textile industry.

Olive oil in the twentieth century 

The beginning of the twentieth century was marked by a series of frosts and a strong migration of southern Italy. The cultivation of olive trees was abandoned because of the depopulation of the areas, but for the same reason new crops began to arise in America and Australia by the hands of Italians who left in search of luck to new lands.

In Italy the olive oil market had a setback because of olive pomace. Gerolamo Gaslini, owner of a company producing seed oil, through acquaintances with the leaders of the fascist regime succeeded in marketing olive pomace, once considered a waste destinated for fertilization. The result was the collapse of the price of olive oil, victim of unfair competition from seed oil and olive pomace. Despite some legislative measures to repair the dramatic situation, the war did not favour the return of olive oil. In the second post-war period, it was the oil mill owner and president of the Italian Industrial Federation (as well as father of the so-called navigation company Costa Crociere), Angelo Costa, to re-establish the order of the oils. Thanks to him, virgin olive oil was placed in the category of olive oil while the olive pomace was downgraded to simple edible oil.

Olive oil abroad

Olive oil resists and persists in all those lands where the olive tradition has deep roots. The largest producers in the European Union are Spain (the world leader), Italy, Greece, Portugal, and France. Outside the Old Continent, there are Tunisia, Turkey, Syria, and Morocco. In Northern Europe, as well as in many parts of America, seed oil (corregge in italiano “olio di mesi”  “olio di semi”) or animal fat are still preferred. For this reason, the countries listed are the largest producers and consumers of olive oil.

Olive oil in our time

The importance and centrality of the Mediterranean diet have allowed olive oil to be the key product of nutrition. Valued in the world and sought after in terms of quality, Italian olive oil has reached excellent records. The Italian culture in the cultivation of olive tree still echoes in the world with volumes of growth in expansion both for exports and for consumption on site. The great future challenge will be to educate new generations about the quality of extra virgin olive oil.