Maresha/ Beit Guvrin PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Article Index
Maresha/ Beit Guvrin
"Market" cave
Olive cave
Burial caves
Beit Guvrin
Bell Caves

Cave Complex with Olive Press

Winding staircase in caveFew of the 153 cave complexes are open for visits. Of these the most remarkable is on the tell's south side. Above ground we see the remains of houses made of the brick-like stones that were quarried below. A staircase leads past a bath into a cistern, and thus begins a winding journey through cave after cave, mainly "columbaria" and cisterns, up and down staircases carved from the chalk 300 years before the birth of Jesus.
The last cave in this magical journey was an olive-oil factory. Olive presses are normally above ground, but 17 have been found beneath the surface of Hellenistic Maresha. It was relatively easy to carve out a chamber, and because of the long waiting periods during the pressing (discussed below), it was convenient to have the assemblage under the house rather than outside the city.

Olive oil was big business in the Shephelah. Just down the road lay Egypt, whose heat is not conducive to growing olives. The Egyptians liked night life. There could be no night life without olive oil to fuel lamps. (Other uses.)

Let us assume a population of 5000 for Hellenistic Maresha. Suppose there were 30 olive presses (13 more than found so far). Each press would have handled 15 acres of olive trees, each acre producing 600 kg. of oil. The total annual olive oil production, then, would have been 300,000 liters. Figuring that each person consumed 18 liters per annum, 90,000 liters would have been used by the Mareshans themselves, leaving 210,000 liters for export to Egypt.

Production occurred in two stages, both of which are illustrated in this cave. First, after washing the olives, one placed them in a circular stone trough called a crushing mill and wheeled a millstone over them for half an hour. The olives need to be thoroughly crushed in order for large oil drops to form, and in order for the fruit enzymes to produce the desired aroma and taste. Then the top layer is skimmed off. This is the best oil, for use in ceremony and with food.
Olive press: stage 1
Olive press: another view

A second stage begins. The paste is scooped from the trough and spread on the surfaces of fiber disks. These are heaped in a column on which pressure is then exerted. In the photographs you can see the method that was used at Maresha. A large wooden beam (reconstructed) was placed over the column of disks, its end held by a niche in the wall. A stone weight (330-550 lbs.) was then hung from the beam, giving about 3 tons of pressure. Liquid percolated through the pores of the fiber disks into a basin below. After separation, which took an hour or so, the top 70% was oil, the next 27% water and the rest sediments. The workers scooped out the oil, discarded the rest, and then hung a second weight from the beam, etc. The heavier the pressure, the lower the quality. The last batch was used for ordinary lamps.

All this took place during the olive harvest in October and November. Too green, the olives gave a bitter oil, too ripe, a rancid. The process was delicate and difficult. One wanted divine protection. Over the gateway in another of the Maresha oil presses (below) appears a niche – probably occupied by the statue of a deity or an incense burner.
 Olive press with votive niche