The Olive Tree in Greece and Lesvos

A 5,000-years old story

The long period towards olive monoculture

Excavation findings from Macedonia and the island of Chios indicate that around the mid-4th century BCE—that is, ten centuries after the first significant technological advancement with the introduction of the lever in the compression stage—we witness the earliest use of a rotary grinder in the first stage of the olive oil extraction process, which for the first time allowed the use of animal power.

Initially with lenticular stones (trapetum) and later with cylindrical millstones (mola olearia), the rotary grinder constituted a really revolutionary development in the olive oil extraction process. These technological innovations are further developed in the 1st century BCE with the introduction of the screw (Gr. cochlis) in the second stage of the process.

Prehistoric Oil Mill, Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil

Trapetum, exhibit at the Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil

Mola olearia, exhibit at the Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil

With minimal variations and local adjustments, the new production system of the Hellenistic Period was maintained until the end of the 19th century, a period that marked the beginning of mechanization. During this long period of technological inactivity, this production system coexisted with the archaic forms of grinding (manual cylindrical grinder) and compression (manual press, lever, bare feet) in the context of minimum-scale household production even down to the late 19th century.

The olive oil remained a luxury good until the Byzantine era, when it was primarily used in religious worshipping, medicine, hygiene, and make up. It was also used as a means for lighting and in nutrition but for specific social classes and in particular areas, which in turn demonstrates the limited olive oil production and consumption.

Up to the first centuries of Ottoman occupation, the structures of agricultural economy did not radically change. Excavation findings and written testimonies attest to the limited scale of olive oil production in the island of Lesvos until the mid-16th century, when the olive tree and oil production is estimated at just 8% of the value of the overall agricultural production.

In the context of western European economic inflow in the Ottoman Empire after the mid-17th century, the increased demand for olive oil led to the gradual development of olive growing. Thus, since the mid-19th century, its production constitutes a monoculture in Lesvos and a main product in Crete and the Peloponnese region.

Double olive press (Gr. linōs), Hellenistic period, from the town of Plakados Geras in Lesvos

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