The importance of the olive in ancient Near Eastern agriculture is well known, and in fact it is one of the cornerstones of traditional agriculture and diet in Mediterranean antiquity in general, and in the Iron Age southern Levant in particular. For the last few decades, the important role that Philistia played in the production of olive oil in the Iron Age IIB has been stressed, based on finds from various sites, and in particular from Tel Miqne-Ekron (so much so that it was called “The Olive Oil Capital of the Ancient World”).
That said, the narrative in recent research was that the importance of the olive oil industry in Philistia started only in the 8th and 7th century BCE.
Recently, finds from Tell es-Safi/Gath have demonstrated that olive oil production was an important and prolific activity in the Iron IIA (and perhaps even in the late Iron I) at the site. This was seen, for example with the numerous olive presses that were found in various areas in the Iron IIA (see picture of two such presses in Area M).
In fact, we have an article dealing with this that should be published in the not-too-distant future (and I’ll inform you when it does appear).
Recently, I collected olives from the olive tree in my garden in Jerusalem, and started the process of pickling olives (for eating, not for olive oil). In light of this, I decided that it would be cool to try and collect olives from the trees located at Tell es-Safi/Gath (theoretically at least, possibly the progeny of olive trees in the region during the Iron Age), and see if I could pickle these olives as well (I guess one could call this enthoarchaeology…)
It should be noted that most studies on the use of olives in antiquity stress that the olives were all (or at least the overall majority) used for producing olive oil, and less for pickling and eating.
In any case, this last Wednesday, when I went to the tell for other reasons (see here), I decided that it would be a great opportunity to collect olives – as this is exactly the season in which olives are traditionally collected in the Mediterranean region (more or less September thru November).
As Iron Age Israel/Judah was an agricultural society, there was a broad range of terms for the various agricultural activities, as seen in the biblical text (and other texts). For example, harvesting olives is termed “masiq” (מסיק; although this term, used in modern Hebrew, only appears in post-biblical Hebrew texts), different from terms used for collecting/harvesting other agricultural produce. And when you hit the olive tree with a stick, to knock down the olives, the biblical terms are (Deut. 24:20; Isa 17:6; 24:13) “chovet” (חובט) or “noqef” (נוקף).
So anyway, while I was at Tell es-Safi/Gath, and with my partners in crime (Yoav’s kids), we collected olives from the olive trees in the lower city, in and around Areas B, K, M, and Y.
As in traditional agriculture, we spread out a tarp under the tree, and then hit the branches with a stick (in this case, a long broom), which made the olives fall, and then we collected the olives that had fallen (some on the tarp, a lot around it…). All told, we had quite a plentiful harvest of olives, and we divided up the bounty, so that I took the green olives and the kids took the black olives (as each are pickled differently).
I took my part home, and started the process of preparing them (washing them out and daily replacing water; making a slice in each olive; and eventually, pickling for about 3 weeks).
I promise to inform you how the olives came out, once the picking is finished (takes a few weeks)! Perhaps, if they come out tasty, I’ll open up a business, selling the “Olives of Gath” (or maybe “Achish Olives”…) :-)
See below pictures of the work and results: