March 8, 2006

Ancient Cypriots fed olive oil to furnaces-study

By Michele Kambas

PYRGOS, Cyprus (Reuters) - It is praised for its culinary
and health properties by any cook worth his salt, but long
before olive oil made it into the Mediterranean diet Cypriots
used it as fuel to melt copper, archaeologists say.

Italian researchers have discovered that environmentally
friendly olive oil was used in furnaces at a site in southern
Cyprus up to 4,000 years ago, instead of the fume-belching
charcoal used in industry for hundreds of years since.

Described as "liquid gold" by the ancient Greek poet Homer,
olive oil has long been associated with grooming, pampering and
the religious rites of the ancients, but not - at least in the
Mediterranean - with heavy industry.

"We know that olive oil made it into our food around 1,000
BC, but it is the first time we have laboratory evidence that
it was used in smelting as a fuel," archaeologist Maria Rosaria
Belgiorno told Reuters.

Cyprus was famed in antiquity for its copper and is
believed to have given its name to the Latin term for the
metal, Cuprum.

The find by Belgiorno's team suggested mankind might be
returning to its roots, at least in terms of energy.

"It is the first time this has been discovered ... and in
Europe it's only recently that industry has turned to biofuels.
This oil burns like benzene," Belgiorno said.

Today's Cypriots might, however, think twice about pumping
this precious commodity into their petrol tanks instead of
drizzling it over their meals.

Average annual production of about 13,500 tones just about
meets local demand and olive oil now sells for around $6 per
liter, compared to around 55 cents for regular fuel.


The smelting site known as Pyrgos Mavroraki is thought to
be part of a larger industrial unit dating from 2,000 BC, when
Cyprus was in its early to mid bronze age.

Lying some 90 km (60 miles) southwest of the capital
Nicosia among sprawling villas, the complex includes copper
smelting works, facilities for textile weaving and dyeing, a
winery and an olive press.

"The olive press and storage facilities were in the middle
of two areas where copper was worked. It shows that for sure
they used olive oil. Can you imagine building an olive press in
the middle of a metallurgy plant. Why?" said Belgiorno.

Tests carried out by the Italian Institute of Technologies
Applied to Cultural Heritage, for whom Belgiorno works, have
discovered olive oil residues in ovens on the site.

Belgiorno said researchers were puzzled by the fact that no
charcoal -- the fuel most widely used at the time -- was found.
Charcoal remains intact despite the passage of time, she said.

"There were no storage areas for charcoal. We have
discovered that to melt copper you need five kilos of olive
oil, compared to 80 kilos of charcoal."

Dark marks on the hard-packed earth in the complex might
escape the untrained eye. But these are stains from the oil
used in the furnaces, traces which also do not fade.


Belgiorno said metallurgy sites have been found close to
olive oil production areas in Egypt and Jordan, so Cypriots
could not lay claim to being the first to use biofuels.

It was, however, the first time science had conclusively
proven that olive oil was used as a fuel, she said.

The highly prized commodity was a key ingredient of
perfumes and ancient geographers noted the abundance of olive
groves and copper mines in Cyprus.

"I suspect the technology came from abroad, most probably
through contact with Palestine and Jordan," said Belgiorno.

Last year at the same site, Belgiorno's team found what
they described as the world's most ancient perfumery, which
used olive oil infused with local herbs.

The site's textile dyeing facilities also suggested
Cypriots had a fashionable flair with their fabrics, using tiny
veins painstakingly extracted from Mediterranean sea snails to
dye their clothes indigo.

"Nobody can really speak about prehistory without
mentioning Cyprus. It was a filter, it took technology from the
Middle East and redistributed it to the western world," said