Where Mythology and Paleontology Collide: Ancient Olive Fossils from Greece
I hold in my hands a poorly consolidated fragment of paleosol. It has a thin olive leaf impression running along its edge.
This brittle fragment is composed of compacted ash. Perhaps Tuff or maybe Tephra is the proper name.
It comes from one of the most famous and violent islands on Earth: Thera (Santorini).
Although the fossil specimen looks unimpressive, it intrigues me for a couple of reasons. First, Santorini has an extremely violent geologic history. It’s amazing that a fossil can even form there. Second, it’s an old olive fossil, its age is possibly 60,000 years old. Notably, it’s the first occurrence of an olive fossil from the Mediterranean.
I had been to Santorini a few years back and remember marveling at the violent and epic stratigraphy preserved in the islands immense thousand foot cliffs that plunge straight into a giant caldera under the sea… Yes it’s picturesque.
View of Santorini from Oia on the far side of the Caldera. Notice the numerous volcanic layers that form the island. The white dots that look like snow caps are the white towns perched on the cliffs.
The layers in these cliffs were created from dozens of large scale eruption events over a few million years. Each event is preserved in a violent layer. One can easily
see ashfall layers (Tephra), pyroclastic deposits, layers of pumice and scoria, many with volcanic bombs (large volcanic rocks) scattered throughout.
Simply looking at these cliffs, even to a slightly trained eye, brings terror. Imagining hot white ash acting as snow in a blizzard, the occasional boulder
being projected through the air at nearly the speed of sound, and terrifying earthquakes shakes the mind. Then, to imagine this event reoccurring over and
over again for millions of years, makes the soul tremble.
LEFT IMAGE:This is a view of a section of the cliffs, showing the numerous sequences of lava, pyroclastic flows, and ash layers.
RIGHT IMAGE: The town Fira is perched on top of Santorini's 1000 foot high caldera
This wind eroded cliff of consolidated ash,
along the Southern part of Santorini, was
created during one of the last phases of
the Minoan eruption of the 1600's BCE.
Today, a few beautiful clifftop towns, such as Fira, dot the island. These towns are literally perched on the rim of the caldera. By simply looking at the
upper layers of the rim they are perched on brings a human factor into this terror. The eruption that is responsible for these upper layers happens to be
the second largest eruption since history was recorded. This caldera explosion around 1600 BCE reduced the size of the island and generated tsunamis and
earthquakes that brought the ancient Minoan civilization to its knees. This great civilization crippling eruption could have even spawned the myth of Atlantis.
However, from this violent island, of literally mythical proportions, come perfectly preserved fossil leaf impressions of a delicate olive tree. These rare Paleolithic traces of the past are truly amazing. Especially when considering they are the oldest olive fossils to be found in the Mediterranean.
This is captivating since olives are a symbol of the Mediterranean and have a far reaching history.
The history of olive use in the Mediterranean area dates back to before written history, to the Upper Paleolithic Era. Later, in ancient Greece, the olive tree was so vital to society, it was considered sacred. Olive oil was used to anoint kings and athletes. It was also a valuable trade commodity, as Homer even stated that olive oil is “Liquid Gold”. The olive branch symbolized peace and prosperity. Since an olive tree can live for thousands of years, it also symbolized wisdom and vitality in ancient Greece. Olives are even found on some Greek coins.
The olive tree was so important, it even has its own creation myth; it was a gift from a goddess. Athena, in order to win the patronage of a new city (Athens), thrust her lance into the soil and turned it into an olive tree. It was a gift to mankind. Legend has it; the lone olive tree on the Acropolis is the original olive tree created by Athena.
Knowing that the olive fossil I hold in my hand, born of fire on Santorini, reaches into a history beyond the ancient olive tree on the Acropolis is awe inspiring. This fossil reaches to the actual Paleolithic time period when this Greek myth was being created. This fossil is the myth.
Here, we are standing in front of the Erechtheion. It is a temple built on the site the deities fought for the patronage of the city. Athena won by creating the Olive tree as a gift for mankind to harvest. The olive tree next to the building in this photo is supposedly a cutting from that original tree.
Images of the olive fossils are shown below:
Fossil Olive Leaf Examples from Greece
A single Olive Leaf Fossil from Santorini, Greece.
A salb with many fossil olive leaf fragments.
A closer view of part of the olive fossl, showing a stem fragment.
A closer view showing a few fossil olive leaves.
Additional Images of Santorini, Greece
Another view of a Tephra ash and rock layer from the Minoan eruption.
The cliffside that the houses are built into (beside the donkey) is composed of a Tephra layer. Notice the large volcanic rocks scattered throughout the layer.
A moonlit view of the clifftop town of Fira, Santorini.
Rows of Olive Trees on an olive farm.
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