A recent archeological dig in Egypt shows that olive wood was present in ancient Egypt as early as the time of Pharoah Menkaure (builder of the third Giza pyramid), about 2551- 2523 BCE, dating at least 500 to 700 years earlier than any other known specimen in Egypt. Until now, the earliest known traces of olive were fruit pits found in 12th Dynasty deposits, and again in the 18th Dynasty (about 1569-1081 BCE). The first definitive evidence that Egyptians were growing olives, dates from the Graeco-Roman era (305 BCE-337 CE).
The olive wood discovery, made by charcoal analyst Rainer Gerisch of Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA), showed that olive wood was genuinely part of Old Kingdom settlement remains. Although there is evidence suggesting that the olive wood was imported, two important facts undermine this hypothesis:
1. It is unlikely that a highly prized and heavily pruned olive tree would end up in the timber trade.
2. The specimens found from the excavation site were mostly from twigs, indicating that the wood was probably not imported, but rather, used to carve small objects, leaving scraps as firewood that ended up as charcoal.
Scientists speculate that perhaps the newly discovered olive wood entered Egypt with other products like olive oil or more useful timber. Some archaeologists believe combed ware pottery vessels –known to exist in Egypt at that time– carried olive oil because they’ve been found in olive oil factory sites in the Levant, where people have pressed olives since the 4th Millennium BCE.
AERA ceramicist Anna Wodzinska has identified 14 combed ware pieces at the Lost City site. According to the report, “If the imported jars carried olive oil, prunings from the orchard might have come along with the jars as some sort of packing material or shipping crates. It is also possible that Egyptian workers brought in the olive twigs with wood shipments. When crews were dispatched to the Levant to fell trees and transport the logs back, they may also have taken firewood to use on their return voyage or to fill up extra space on their ship.” Since Gerisch found the olive with small pieces of charcoal from other Levantine trees (such as cedar, pine, and deciduous and evergreen oaks) it is very likely that they came from the Levant together.
Is it possible that Egyptians were growing olive trees?
Possible, yes, but conclusive? The fact that Queen Hatshepsut maintained a botanical garden of exotic plants in the New Kingdom is not sufficient evidence to prove or disprove whether Menkaure made an early and undocumented effort to cultivate olive trees in palace gardens. Very few Old Kingdom town sites have been excavated extensively or sampled methodically for wood charcoal, leaving the answer to this question buried in the sands of time.