Researchers identify Italy’s earliest known evidence of olive oil

olive oilCredit: Polo Regionale di Siracusa per i siti e musei archeologici Museo Paolo Orsi

The archaeological evidence of the olive oil possibly goes back to circa 6000 BC. And thus with over 8,000-years of history, it doesn’t come as a surprise that olive oil is the staple of many Mediterranean countries, including Italy, Spain, Greece, and Morocco. Pertaining to the former, Italy is the second largest producer of olive oil in the world. And now researchers have identified the oldest known evidence of Italian olive oil from specific pottery (found in the country). And quite intriguingly, the ceramic object proves that the liquid gold has existed in Italy centuries longer than what anthropologists have previously recorded.

The project was undertaken by the researchers at the University of South Florida, with the study focusing on a particular jar specimen that was originally discovered in its fragmented form in the 90s at the site of Castelluccio, located in the Apennine Mountains of central Italy. Conservators at the Archaeological Museum of Siracusa played their crucial role in restoring the jar by assembling the over 400 ceramic fragments, an admirable feat which resulted in this large egg-shaped storage container that was around 3.2 ft high. The very same site also revealed two basins (once again in their fragmented forms) with an internal septum, along with a large terracotta cooking plate. The design of the basins alludes to how the containers were used to store multiple objects that were kept separate from each other.

olive oil

Credit: Polo Regionale di Siracusa per i siti e musei archeologici Museo Paolo Orsi

The study in question here entailed the analysis of the ancient organic residues found inside these aforementioned storage containers. The process in itself involved techniques like Gas Chromatography, Mass Spectrometry, and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. Consequently, the team found traces of both oleic and linoleic acids in all the three samples, thus confirming the trademark signature of olive oil. Dr. Davide Tanasi, assistant professor of history at the University of South Florida and head of the research project, said –

The shape of this storage container and the nearby septum was like nothing else Voza found at the site in Castelluccio. It had the signature of Sicilian tableware dated to the end of the 3rd and beginning of the 2nd millennium BC (Early Bronze Age). We wanted to learn how it was used, so we conducted chemical analysis on organic residues found inside. The results obtained with the three samples from Castelluccio become the first chemical evidence of the oldest olive oil in Italian prehistory, pushing back the hands of the clock for the systematic olive oil production by at least 700 years.

Lastly, in case one is interested, the previously earliest known evidence of olive oil in Italy come from the southern part of the country, pertaining to Cosenza and Lecce. These pieces of evidence date from circa 12th and 11th century BC, thus coinciding with the Copper Age.

The study was originally published in the online journal Analytical Methods.

Source: Phys (material provided by the University of South Florida)

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