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Caracuta, V. Olive growing in Puglia (southeastern Italy): a review of the evidence from the Mesolithic to the Middle Ages. Veget Hist Archaeobot 29, 595–620 (2020). [LINK]



Olive cultivation is a pillar of the Italian culture and economy and, among the regions with the longest tradition of cultivation is Apulia, where olive tree has become the trademark of the countryside landscape. Despite the importance of the plant for the human communities, little is known about its origin or the time when it became a dominant cultivation. The goal of the project ELAION is to create a comprehensive study that includes evidences across different fields and periods to outline the history of the plant in the Apulian region. Information included in the survey are obtained from archaeological and archaeobotanical record, numismatic and ancient texts, and are organized on a chronological scale, from the Prehistory to the late Middle Ages.
Archaeological evidence includes ancient installations for the extraction of olive oil and the production of the amphorae for overseas shipment of oil, while archaeobotanical evidence consists of wood, stones and olive pollen found in archaeological contexts and natural deposits. References to olive cultivation and oil production in classical authors or in administrative documents (registers, donations etc.), are also included to the survey. The comparison of data across different fields and periods provides a unique opportunity to study the history of olive cultivation in Apulia over the last 6th millennia.

The origin olive and the first attestations in Apulia - Neolithic and Eneolithic period.

The first appearance of the olive in Apulia dates around 7000 years ago, in a climatic phase characterized by relatively high temperatures that favored the spread of ever-green vegetation of oaks and pines on the Italian Adriatic coast (Di Rita, Magri 2009). The presence of olive pollen in natural deposits is recorded in Lago Battaglia (Caroli, Caldara 2006), Lago Salpi (Di Rita 2011), MD90-917 (Combourieu-Nebout et al. 2013) and Lago Alimini Piccolo (Di Rita , Magri 2009) (Map 1). The pollen evidences prove the presence of wild olive trees on the Apulian coast in prehistoric times, but it is unclear if the local communities had aver used the plant.
The role of the olive in the economy of the prehistoric communities is proved by the remains of olive wood and pits in archaeological contexts, such findings were discovered in the Neolithic site of Pulo di Molfetta (Primavera, Fiorentino 2011) and in the Eneolithic Macchia Don Cesare (Aprile et al. In press). The remains prove that olive tree branches were harvested and certainly used as fuel, but we can assume that the plant was also used for its fruit, since olive pits were found in Neolithic burial of Carpignano Salentino along with barley and wheat (Primavera 2008).

From natural exploitation to domestication – The Bronze Age
In the 2nd millennium, the numerous findings of wood in the Apulian protohistoric coastal sites and the increase of pollen of the species in the pollen diagram of Lago Alimini Piccolo shows the intensification of the exploitation of olive tree in the region (Primavera et al. in press; Di Rita, Magri 2009)
The pollen record shows a general reduction of all tree species except for the olive tree, which suddenly increased at the beginning of the 20th century BC. This increase was too fast to be driven by natural factors whereas it could be the consequence of the greater interest humans took into the wild olive trees. Based on the pollen record alone, it is unclear if the humans actually domesticated the species, or, just by cutting other competing species, simply favored the spread of olive trees over other evergreens.
An answer to this question might come from the discovery of a Bronze Age burial in Piazza Palmieri-Monopoli, where several olive pits were found associated to a female burial which dated to the 15th century BC (Fiorentino 1995) (Map 2). Based on the morphology of the pits, the olives showed similarities with the domesticated varieties widespread in the western Mediterranean (Terral et al. 2004). This discovery, which is unique in the Italian panorama, offers a basis to claim that primitive forms of olive domestication occurred in Apulia as early as the 2nd millennium BC.

The intensification of the production and trades with the Aegean – The Iron Age, Archaic and Hellenistic period.
After a hiatus of about five centuries, the olive tree reappears in the archaeological sites of Apulia around the 9th century BC; the absence is mostly due to the lack of the archaeobotanical record for the centuries comprised between the 14th and the 9th BC. Given this absence, it is difficult to follow the history of the domestication in Apulia, from the early attempts to the establishment of the olive-cultivation.
Data become more abundant during the Iron Age, Archaic and Hellenistic period; between the 9th and the 2nd century BC, findings of olive pits and olive wood are frequently found in archaeological sites of the Salento peninsula, in the southeast part of Apulia. During this period, findings are not limited to the coastal areas, as it was in the Bronze Age, but they can be found also inlands, such as in L’Amastuola (Lentjes 2011), Muro Tenente (Lentjes 2010) and Oria (Ciaraldi 1997) (Map 3).
The presence of olive trees in areas that were previously devoided of findings might depend on a new pattern of settlement-distribution, typical of the Iron Age, that aimed to build on hilltops. The importance of the olive in this period is due to the olive oil production, as proved by the remains of an installation for the extraction of oil found at Oliovitolo - Grottaglie. The installation, built in the 5th century BC and abandoned in the 3rd century, was then restored and reopened in the 1st century BC (Alessio 2001). A characteristic feature of the archaic period (3rd century BC) is the issuing of drachma coins with Athena's head on the obverse and the owl on the olive branch on the reverse. Example of such coins were found in Butuntum-Bitonto (Rutter, buttern 2001) and Taras-Taranto (Siciliano 2017). The theme Athena / Owl is typical of the Athenians mint and may have been adopted by the two cities for commercial reasons; however it is interesting to note that Bitonto and Taranto have been two major centers for olive production since the ancient time.

The agrarian specialization and exports across the Mediterranean Sea – The Roman period.

In the Roman time, olive cultivation became a major asset for the local famers and the olive tree reached the status of landmark of the region together with cereals and vine.
For classical authors who wrote in the 1st century BC, the Salento peninsula, in the south, and the Capitanata, in the north, are renowned for the extension of their olive orchards (Diog. Alic. Ant. Rom. 1, 37, 2). During the early years of the imperium, the Apulian olive oil was mostly produced for export; Varro mentions Brindisi, in the Salento peninsula, as one of the major port of the shipment of the olive oil across the Mediterranean Sea (Varr. Re Rust. 2,6,5).
The role of Brindisi as a strategic hub for the commercialization of the oil produced in Salento is confirmed by the presence of three centers, in the proximity of the town, for the production of oil amphorae in Apani, Marmorelle (Palazzo 2004, 1994) and in the villa-farm of Giancola. In the latter site there are also remains of an installation for the extraction of olive oil (Manacorda, Pellecchia 2004).

The oil exported from the port of Brindisi came from a local varieity called ‘sallentina’ which was also known to Pliny (Plin. Nat. Hist. 15:20). The trappetum (installation for the oil extraction) found in the site of Piazzetta Castromediano-Lecce (D'Andria 2004), and the furnace for the production of amphorae in Felline-Ugento (Pagliara 1968) confirm the importance of Salento as center for the production and export of olive oil during the Roman time.
In central Apulia, the presence of installation for the olive oil extraction in Oliovitolo and Pizzariello (Alessio 2001 Andreassi 2006) prove the olive-growing vocation of this province that attracts the praise of Horace. In his Odes, the Latin poet expresses his desire to spend his old age in the most beautiful places he knows and he points to Taranto province, which produces oil so excellent to be comparable with that of Venafro (Campania), considered the best of Italy (Hor., Odes, 2, 6, 9-16).
The presence of numerous trappeti for oil extraction in Capitanata, even in areas outside the natural range of the olive distribution, proves the economic importance reach by the olive trees in the roman time also in the north part of Apulia (Volpe 1990) (Map 4).

Warfare, crisis and recovery of the olive oil farming- Early and Late Middle Ages.

The information available on the transformation of the olive cultivation in Apulia, between the Late Antiquity and Middle Ages, are relatively scarce
Mentions of the olive trees in Apulia date to the 4th century AD and can be found in the Carmi, an opera by Paulinus from Nola (Paul. Nol. Carm. XIV, 76-77). Evidence of the use of olive wood are found in several sites in Apulia, from the north to the south, and prove the continuity of the exploitation of the species for carpentry and fueling (Stellati 2014, Caracuta and Fiorentino 2009, Primavera et al. 2011).
The events of the Greek-Gothic war (5th-6th century AD) must have had an impact on the agrarian system of the region, making it difficult to cultivate the land under the warfare (De Robertis, 1972).
The written sources available for the Gothic period seem to indicate a general recovery of the agricultural sector (Cassiod. Variae, I, 16), but the references to the olive orchards are scarce and only the archaeobotanical remains allow somehow to prove the presence of this plant in Apulia . To date, the only olive remains available for the 7th-8th century AD are found in Salento, an area under the Byzantine influence, in Apigliano, Supersano and Paretone di Sava (Fiorentino 2008 Arthur et al., 2012; Grasso et al. 2008).
The information inferred from the administrative documents of the Norman period (11th-12th century) show a renewed interest in the cultivation of the olive tree (Amelli 1903, De Leo 1940) (Map 5). By the end of the 13th century, olive had become the dominant element in the landscape of the eastern Apulian coast (Cherubini 2005).
The Venetian traders seems to have played a major role for the development of the olive economy, to the point that in the 14th century the Apulian oil was shipped to Constantinople, Alexandria, Cyprus and Rhodes (Balducci Pegolotti 1343).
In the medieval period, the presence of olive is attested mostly in archaeological sites of the northern Apulia, on the heights of the Sub-Apennines as well as in the Tavoliere Plain (Caracuta, Fiorentino 2012), and in the south, in the Salento peninsula (Grasso, Fiorentino in press; Fiorentino 1999; Pasquino 2015).



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