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Where Mythology and Paleontology Collide

Olive Fossils

Fossil Olive Leaf from Santorini, Greece

Olives from an Olive tree in Greece.

Where Mythology and Paleontology Collide: Ancient Olive Fossils from Greece

I hold in my hand a fragment of paleosol. Running along the edge of it is an olive leaf fossil impression. This brittle fragment is composed of compacted ash, perhaps Tuff or Tephra. It comes from one of the most famous and violent islands on Earth: Thera (Santorini).

Although this fossil specimen looks unimpressive, it's intriguing for a couple reasons. First, Santorini has an extremely violent geologic history. It's amazing that a fossil can even form and survive here. Second, it's an old olive fossil; the age is possibly 60,000 years old. Notably, this is 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.

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.

These cliffs were created from dozens of large scale eruptions over the past 2 million years. Each event is preserved in a violent layer seen in the cliffs. One can easily see ashfall layers (Tephra), pyroclastic deposits, and layers of pumice and scoria, many with volcanic bombs (large volcanic rocks) scattered throughout. Imagining hot white ash acting as snow in a blizzard, the occasional boulder being projected through the air at nearly the speed of sound accompanied by terrifying earthquakes, makes the soul tremble.

It's not hard to see why this volcano may have caused a civilization ending eruption that spawned myths till this day.

This is a view of a section of the cliffs, showing the numerous sequences of lava, pyroclastic flows, and ash layers.

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 perched on crescent shaped cliff. This cliff is the remains of a caldera that exploded thousands of years ago and broke the island apart.

One such explosion, the "Minoan Eruption" occured around 1600 BCE. It 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 delicate olive trees. 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.

We are standing in front of the Erechtheion, the temple built on the site where 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:

A slab 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.

Olive Trees.

Rows of Olive Trees.

Recommended Books:

The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times
by Adrienne Mayor, 2011

This book is a great merger of ancient Mythology and Paleontology. Fossils have been around since human beginnings. This book delves into what people thought fossils of long extinct animals were before modern science. It cleaverly pieces together origins of myth and reality in varous cultures, including the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians. It's a great read!

Greek Mythology: A Complete Guide to Olympians, Titans, Heroes, Their Captivating, Ancient Myths, and Who They Were
by Anastasios Lekkas, 2016

This Best Seller book is one of the best books on Greek Mythology. It's packed with numerous stories linking together the tales of heros, gods, and mortals. It's a great suppliment for learning about Greek Mythology.

Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity
by J. E. Lendon, 2006

From 400 BCE to the Late Roman Empire, Lendon surveys ancient warfare to show how it has evolved over time. He brings to life all the major battles from the Battle of Champions with the Spartans through the Persian invasion of late Rome. It's a great book for any Ancient history buff!

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