John Laughlin

Olive press or cult installation? When this photograph first appeared in BAR, in the September/October 1981 issue, the enigmatic installation was tentatively identified by the excavators at Tel Dan as a site for water libation rituals.

Now, some archaeologists argue that the configuration of slabs, basin and buried jars is in fact the oldest olive press yet discovered in Israel, dating to the late tenth or the ninth century B.C.

The photo shows a sunken basin with plastered sides and a flagstone bottom, a flat basalt slab to its left and, far left, the open mouth of a buried jar. Not seen in the photo are another slab and buried jar to the right of the basin (see cross-section drawing and plan).

Here is how the installation would have worked as an oil press. First the olives were crushed in the central basin. Water was added to the pulp so that the lighter oil could be skimmed off the surface. The pulp residue was then placed in woven baskets that were stacked on the basalt slabs on either side of the basin. The remaining oil was pressed out of the pulp by the pressure applied by a long wooden beam. One end of the beam fit into a niche, not visible in this photo, in the wall behind the pressing platforms. On the other end of the beam hung large stone weights, probably the perforated stones seen here behind the basalt slab. These weights caused the beam to press the stacked baskets with tremendous force, squeezing out the pulp’s remaining oil, which then ran down the slanted pressing platforms into the open mouths of the buried vessels. (See illustration of similar beam press.)