Anne's Blog

Ancient Treasures of Olive Oil, Italy’s Liquid Gold

Date: October 28, 2020 - categories: - Leave your thoughts

People in the eastern Mediterranean have been grinding olives for oil for the last 6,000-8,000 years. and wild olives, which originated in Asia Minor, were collected by Neolithic people as early as the 8th millennium B.C.

The oldest testament of olive cultivation was found in Palestine  (Bronze Age, 3500 B.C.):  a couple of olive pits and charred olive wood used for fires.
Olives were grown on Crete by 3,000 B.C., bringing much wealth to the producers and olive oil production and trading requirements were also set out in the famous Babylonian Hammurabi Code (of the third millenium B.C.).

In Burgundy,  France, archaeologists recently unearthed ninety-nine vessels of about 500 B.C. with traces of olive oil, which scientists believe was used by the Celts –  living there then –  for embalming rather than for their  cuisine.The archaeologists are not sure from whom the Celts purchased their oil: from Italy, Greece or Southern France?
On this 5th B.C. Greek amphora, note a scene of the purchase of olive oil:

For all of the ancient peoples of the Mediterranean area,  the earliest uses of olive oil were for the embalming of loved ones, balsams for athletes and for use in cosmetics.

Countless archaeological museums of Italy display prized collections of 1st B.C. – 2nd A.D. glass unguentari (containers for oil):


Some almost seem contemporary in their design:

Often the unguentario   – also called a “balsamario” – would have zoomorphic shapes. A terracotta Etruscan one is in the shape of a deer….


… and in a 6th-c. B.C. Etruscan unguentario, the oil is held by monkey:

A monkey armed with a shield mounts a horse in this Etruscan balsamàrio of the 6th-c. B.C.:


A collection of swan-shaped balsamari dating to 700 – 550 B.C. (found in the tombs of Populonia, Tuscany) are now on display in the Museo Archeologico in Florence:

Other Bronze-age balsamari – animal and bird-shaped terracotta ones from 800-650 B.C. –  are on display in Grosseto (Tuscany) in their Museo Archeologico:

Containers for oil were called “askos” by the Greeks and various Etruscan askos have been found in tombs, dating from the 5th to 4th-c. B.C. This bellissimo duck-shaped askos (found in an Etruscan tomb of about 350 B.C. in Vulci, Latium ) is now in the British Museum:


…and this one is in the Chiusi (Tuscany) archaeological museum:

The Etruscan collection in Volterra (Tuscany) includes this duck-shaped askos…

….as well as another one of refined and delicate workmanship:


And if you’re in New York, this 4th-c. B.C.  Etruscan askos of Chiusi (Tuscany) is now in the Met:

In Rome as of about the 1st-c. B.C., there was a diffuse production of another bird-shaped vessel for oils,  la colombina (“small dove”).  In thin and transparent glass, the delicate doves in various colors were produced up until about the 2nd-c A.D.   Produced by blowing, the doves were probably of Syrian-Palestinian origin.

Once filled with the perfumed oil, the doves were sealed by flame to preserve the contents until used and when needed, the beak or tail was broken to open it.  Although originating in the Middle East, they were also produced in large quantities on Italic soil, especially in the Piedmont area.

The most sought after balsams were those in a colombina and these dove-shaped vessels holding balsams were also exported to distant areas of the Mediterranean.
The Romans were great conquerors and great hedonists, taking from their provinces and beyond what was needed to add sensuous pleasure to life. Perfume ranked at the top of their pleasures and they used it abundantly, males as well – even the soldiers – for the Romans were the greatest connoisseurs and admirers of perfumes in antiquity.

Women and men, too, appear on the Etruscan askos –  and and one wonders if these images might be portraits of the deceased buried in the 4th-c.B.C. Etruscan tomb of Tarquinia where they were found:

This bronze askos – found in an archaeological site of Bulgaria –  belonged to a pugilist and most probably contained the oils he would rub on his body before and after fights (and note his broken nose!):

Here you can see both sides of the askos:

The bust of an elegant woman forms the Bronze-age (700- 550 B.C.) askos found in a tomb of Populonia (Tuscany):

And another Bronze-age askos has returned home: sold in 1988 by Calabrian tombaroli (tomb-robbers) to a Swiss collector for about $5000 – and a cow – the rare and valuable mermaid-shaped askos of the 5th-c B.C. had ended up in the Getty Museum, Los Angeles.  But its provenance has been proved – and the askos is now a casa. Home.  In the Museo Arcaeologico of Crotone (Calabria).


What golden treasures in our Italy associated with its precious “liquid gold.”

Read here about olive oil as illumination

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