Oldest Olive Wood in Egypt

September 14th, 2009

AERA’s Multinational Research Team Discovers Oldest Olive Wood in Egypt

BOSTON, MA – Researchers at Ancient Egypt Research Associates, Inc., the premier non-profit organization conducting original archaeological research and educational programs in Egypt, have discovered new evidence suggesting that olive wood was present in ancient Egypt as early as 2551- 2523 BCE, between 500 to 700 years before previously believed, a find that may provide new insights into the life of the pyramid builders.

AERA’s Multinational Research Team Discovers Oldest Olive Wood in Egypt

BOSTON, MA – Researchers at Ancient Egypt Research Associates, Inc., the premier non-profit organization conducting original archaeological research and educational programs in Egypt, have discovered new evidence suggesting that olive wood was present in ancient Egypt as early as 2551- 2523 BCE, between 500 to 700 years before previously believed, a find that may provide new insights into the life of the pyramid builders.

The discovery, made by AERA charcoal analyst Rainer Gerisch, suggests that olive wood was at least present, if not grown, in Egypt as early as the time of Pharaoh Menkaure (about 2551-2523 BCE), builder of the third Giza pyramid. Until now, the earliest known traces of olive were fruit pits found in 12th Dynasty deposits at Memphis. Even then, there are almost no other archaeological finds of olive until the 18th Dynasty (about 1569-1081 BCE).

The first definitive evidence that Egyptians were growing olives dates from the Graeco-Roman era (305 BCE-337 CE). With AERA’s new evidence, scientists can now conclude that the olive wood is genuinely part of the Old Kingdom settlement remains, dating at least 500 years earlier than any other known specimens in Egypt.

Although there is evidence suggesting that the olive wood was imported, two important facts undermine this hypothesis. It is unlikely that a highly prized and heavily pruned olive tree would ended up in the timber trade. And, since the specimens found at AERA’s excavation are mostly from twigs, the wood was probably not imported and used to carve small objects, leaving scraps as firewood that might have ended up as charcoal.

Perhaps then, the newly discovered olive wood entered Egypt with other products, possibly olive oil or more useful timber. Some archaeologists believe combed ware pottery vessels known to exist in Egypt at the time carried olive oil because they have been found in olive oil factory sites in the Levant, where people have pressed olives since the 4th Millennium BCE.

AERA ceramicist Anna Wodzinska has identified 14 combed ware sherds at the Lost City site. If the imported jars carried olive oil, prunings from the orchard might have come along with the jars as some sort of packing material or shipping crates. It is also possible that Egyptian workers brought in the olive twigs with wood shipments. When crews were dispatched to the Levant to fell trees and transport the logs back, they may also have taken firewood to use on their return voyage or to fill out extra space on their ship. Gerisch found the olive with small pieces of charcoal from other Levantine trees-cedar, pine, and deciduous and evergreen oaks-suggesting that they may have come from the Levant together.

Is it possible that Egyptians were growing olive trees? In the New Kingdom Queen Hatshepsut maintained a botanical garden of exotic plants. Perhaps Menkaure made an early and undocumented effort to cultivate olive trees in palace gardens. Few Old Kingdom town sites have been excavated extensively and sampled methodically for wood charcoal. AERA’s work may inspire others to carry out similar studies and perhaps discover more information about the role of olive trees in ancient Egypt.

AERA is a member-supported non-profit organization dedicated to high-quality original research and educational programs in Egypt. For more information about AERA or to become a member, go to www.aeraweb.org.

The discovery, made by AERA charcoal analyst Rainer Gerisch, suggests that olive wood was at least present, if not grown, in Egypt as early as the time of Pharaoh Menkaure (about 2551-2523 BCE), builder of the third Giza pyramid. Until now, the earliest known traces of olive were fruit pits found in 12th Dynasty deposits at Memphis. Even then, there are almost no other archaeological finds of olive until the 18th Dynasty (about 1569-1081 BCE).

The first definitive evidence that Egyptians were growing olives dates from the Graeco-Roman era (305 BCE-337 CE). With AERA’s new evidence, scientists can now conclude that the olive wood is genuinely part of the Old Kingdom settlement remains, dating at least 500 years earlier than any other known specimens in Egypt.

Although there is evidence suggesting that the olive wood was imported, two important facts undermine this hypothesis. It is unlikely that a highly prized and heavily pruned olive tree would ended up in the timber trade. And, since the specimens found at AERA’s excavation are mostly from twigs, the wood was probably not imported and used to carve small objects, leaving scraps as firewood that might have ended up as charcoal.

Perhaps then, the newly discovered olive wood entered Egypt with other products, possibly olive oil or more useful timber. Some archaeologists believe combed ware pottery vessels known to exist in Egypt at the time carried olive oil because they have been found in olive oil factory sites in the Levant, where people have pressed olives since the 4th Millennium BCE.

AERA ceramicist Anna Wodzinska has identified 14 combed ware sherds at the Lost City site. If the imported jars carried olive oil, prunings from the orchard might have come along with the jars as some sort of packing material or shipping crates. It is also possible that Egyptian workers brought in the olive twigs with wood shipments. When crews were dispatched to the Levant to fell trees and transport the logs back, they may also have taken firewood to use on their return voyage or to fill out extra space on their ship. Gerisch found the olive with small pieces of charcoal from other Levantine trees-cedar, pine, and deciduous and evergreen oaks-suggesting that they may have come from the Levant together.

Is it possible that Egyptians were growing olive trees? In the New Kingdom Queen Hatshepsut maintained a botanical garden of exotic plants. Perhaps Menkaure made an early and undocumented effort to cultivate olive trees in palace gardens. Few Old Kingdom town sites have been excavated extensively and sampled methodically for wood charcoal. AERA’s work may inspire others to carry out similar studies and perhaps discover more information about the role of olive trees in ancient Egypt.

AERA is a member-supported non-profit organization dedicated to high-quality original research and educational programs in Egypt. For more information about AERA or to become a member, go to www.aeraweb.org.