Olive oil jar 8,000 years old
Olive oil jar 8,000 years oldCourtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

Just in time for Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday celebrating the miracle in which olive oil burned eight days instead of one as the Maccabees restored the Temple and fought off Greek occupiers, an unprecedented archaeological find has unearthed 8,000-year-old olive oil jar shards.

The jars provide the earliest evidence for the use of olive oil in Israel, and likely in the entire Middle East, and were found in the Lower Galilee area. The findings were recently published by Israel Antiquities Authority researchers Dr. Ianir Milevski and Nimrod Getzov in an article in the Israel Journal of Plant Sciences.

Milevski and Getzov oversaw an excavation between 2011 and 2013 at Ein Zippori ahead of a project widening Highway 79. Their finds proved olive oil was already used in the sixth millennium BCE.

Pottery vessel shards found in the excavation were examined by the two along with Dr. Dvory Namdar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Institute of Earth Sciences, in an in-depth chemical process to identify organic remains absorbed by the pottery.

The pottery, which dated to the Early Chalcolithic period, was found to contain olive oil, with a comparison to modern one-year-old oil showing a strong resemblance pointing to how well the ancient oil was preserved. Two of the twenty vessels sampled were found to be particularly ancient, dating back to roughly 5,800 BCE.

"In underwater archaeological excavations directed by Dr. Ehud Galili opposite Kfar Samir, south of Haifa, remains of an olive oil industry from this period were previously discovered, whereas now at Zippori, evidence has been found for first time of the use of olive oil," the researchers noted. "Together with the Kfar Samir discovery, this is the earliest evidence of olive oil production in the country, and possibly the entire Levant (the Mediterranean basin)."

Speaking about the oil, the two researchers added "it seems that olive oil was already a part of the diet and might also have been used for lighting. Although it is impossible to say for sure, this might be an olive species that was domesticated and joined grain and legumes – the other kinds of field crops that we know were grown then. Those crops are known from at least two thousand years prior to the settlement at Ein Zippori."

"With the adoption of olive oil the basic Mediterranean diet was complete. From ancient times to the present, the Mediterranean economy has been based on high quality olive oil, grain and must (grape juice), the three crops frequently mentioned in the Bible," the two noted.

8,000-year-old olive oil jar shards Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority