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Notes from the field 01 / The Cretan olive groves

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A few days ago I returned to Athens from the blizzard struck Crete, where I completed this year’s assessment of two projects, submitted for the Europa Nostra Awards. Too many unknown words? Thought so.

European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Awards

For starters, Europa Nostra (EN) is a confederation of c. 250 European Non Governmental Organisations, “a citizens’ movement” as EN identifies herself, active “for the safeguarding of Europe’s cultural and natural heritage”, for more than 50 years. In 1978 Europa Nostra created the ‘Europa Nostra Awards’ scheme to reward and promote good practices in conservation, research, dedicated service and raising awareness programmes. In 1991 the awards scheme was reformed and gained publicity and in 2002 it was recast as the ‘European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Awards’, under the auspice of the European Commission. The awards scheme focuses on the ‘power of the example’ across Europe and a prize is given to up to thirty projects each year. From these, up to seven projects are selected as Grand Prix laureates and receive €10.000 each while one, chosen in an online poll, receives the Public Choice Award. The awards are presented in an official ceremony that takes place each year in a different European city.

In 2013 the award ceremony was held in Athens, hosted by the local member organisation of Europa Nostra: Elliniki Etairia, a NGO with long presence in the field of heritage protection and management. This event renewed the interest on the awards in Greece and more organisations have since submitted their projects, claiming a prize. However, Greece has been participating in that scheme since it’s beginning in 1978, having received, more or less, 51 awards till today.

To be fair in the judgement of the candidates across Europe, Europa Nostra asks each year its local member organisations to dispatch heritage experts in order to review up close the projects submitted and report back at The Hague.

The olive groves of Crete

I have been reviewing projects for Europa Nostra, through Elliniki Etairia, since 2008 but this is another long story. This year I was asked to go to Crete and review two submitted projects for the EN Awards. Both of the projects, from diverse ends and with quite different prospects, had to do with the olive groves of Crete. As it wouldn’t be fair to discuss them in detail before the jury’s decision (mid April 2015), I might share a couple of thoughts on this outstanding resource, the olive groves of Crete, a marvel hiding in common view.

Detail from the trunk of the olive tree of Gortyna

Detail from the trunk of the olive tree of Gortyna

Historical reference

Olive trees populate the historical record of Greece impressively. They have been spotted quite early in the archaeological context of Crete. Actually, findings from the Middle and Late Neolithic (5th millennium) from Chania and Rethymno are considered to be among the first appearances of olive trees -probably the wild species: Olea Oleaster- in Europe (Sarpaki 2013); although, the botanical origins and diffusion of cultivation practices have been a subject of dispute. Olive trees are cultivated through the Minoan era, during the 3rd and more systematically the 2nd millennium, with the consequent development of relevant technology for the extraction and management of olive oil (Vasilakis 2002; Chatzi-Vallianou 2002). Olive trees are mentioned in Linear A and B tablets and are quite popular in depictions of that era: on wall-paintings, storage vessels or other pottery, sealing rings and others; an observation that affirms the olive tree as the sacred tree of Minoans (Vasilakis 2002, 57).


Left: E-ra-wa: Ελαία: Olive tree & E-la-wo: Έλαιον: Olive oil in Linear B syllabic writing | Right: The ideogram of olive tree in Linear A.


The olive tree on the Minos’ ring (15th c. BC) and its fanciful story

Olive trees are immortalised by Homer in symbolic, cosmetic or culinary uses. In classical times, they are connected with Athena, Hercules or historical figures as Plato and Peisistratus. Old olive trees (moriai – μορίαι) were considered sacred, demarcated with a wooden fence (sikos – σηκός), and annually examined by an officer, who confirmed their well-being (Aristot. Const. Ath. 60.2; Lys. 7 5). Victors in the Olympic games were crowned with branches of wild olive trees (kotinos – κότινος). Christian tradition has newborns anointed with olive oil, during their baptism, to secure them from evil. What is more, olive trees are omnipresent in the life of Greek traditional communities, from the cuisine to the roofs of traditional buildings.

However visible in the tangible and intangible historical record, dating of olive trees is quite problematic. Their complex relief, a result of distinct roots connected to branches, leads to asymmetrical development of the perimeter of the tree that averts conventional dendrochronological methods (Lavee 1966). However, a pattern has been devised, examining the perimeter and trunk height of the trees, maintaining that trunk of the tree grows 0,8-1,55 mm per year (Michelakis 2002, 35).  

Detail from the trunk of the olive tree of Pano Vouves

Detail from the trunk of the olive tree of Pano Vouves

Monumental olive trees & ACOM

This method has led to the acknowledgement of more than 25 ‘monumental’ olive trees in Crete, aged more than 100 and up to 3000 years old. The Association of Cretan Olive Municipalities (ACOM) runs a relevant ongoing project: an interdisciplinary committee crowdsources and evaluates information on olive trees, assessing their possible ‘monumental’ status. Commonly the trees and surroundings are cleared and demarcated and a small panel is installed informing on the story of the tree and the area. Their main aim is to raise awareness and also to add an extra particle of touristic interest to the hinterland Crete.

This project is not to be mistaken with the official processes and criteria for the declaration and preservation of ‘Monuments of Nature’, as described in L.1650/86, L.2742/99, the Joint Ministerial Decision 69269/5387/1990 and the specific guidelines approved in the 91088/2072/7-6-06 Circular of the Special Secreteriat of Forests. It should be noted, however, that all these regulations are currently inactive, since no new natural resources are enlisted.

Due to bad weather, I managed to visit only few of these ‘monumental’ olive trees. All of them could be found here. My first visit, was at the most famous and visited olive tree in Crete: the tree of Pano Vouves, located in the area of Platanias, near the German War Cemetery of Maleme. ACOM, quite impressively, estimates its age to 3.000 years. The tree with an impressive -as sculpted- trunk has been demarcated by a low stone fence and a small museum–information centre has been built nearby. The golden winner of the men’s Marathon at the Olympic Games of Athens in 2004, was crowned by a wreath from this tree. Much more difficult to spot is the ‘ipsomeni’ (raised) olive tree of Vatolakos, again in Chania region. The tree is connected with various apotropaic folk traditions; according to one, offerings inserted and sealed in the trunk of the tree, averted the evil and secured crop fertility for the village.

The olive tree at Pano Vouves, Chania

The olive tree at Pano Vouves, Chania

The keepers of Vouves' tree

The keepers of Vouves’ tree

On the eastern part of the island, lies the olive tree of Kavoussi, located in a more rural environment, close to the palimpsestic site of Azorias (5000-700 BC) in Ierapetra. With a diameter of 14 m., its branches crowned the winner in the women’s Marathon in the Olympic games in 2004, cut during a crowded, bizarre, antique-like, ceremony. Finally, opposite to the parking lot of the archaeological site of Gortyna, in a splendid olive grove of the Herakleion region, one could see the much-photographed monumental olive tree of Gortyna, which has trapped a roman column in its trunk.

The olive tree of Gortyna

The olive tree of Gortyna

Olive trees as a resource

Apart from the old olive trees, estimated as the 20% of the total, current cultivation is one of the most popular agricultural activities on the island. It is estimated that 90% of the families are engaged with olive tree cultivation, which covers 25% of the total island area (c.175.000 hectares) and 65% of the agricultural land uses. Approximately 35 million olive trees are cultivated and c.100.000 tons of extra virgin oil are produced per year, 90% of which is exported. Although behind Andalucía or Tuscany, the Cretan production makes Greece the third largest producer, accounting for the 12.1% of world production, with Greeks having the largest per capita consumption of olive oil worldwide.

Harvest season

Harvest season

Thus, it is not difficult to deduce that the cultivation of olive trees is a vital aspect in the primary sector of the Cretan economy. But could it be used as a touristic product? Partially, this question has been long answered. The official Greek portal for tourism urges ‘alternative’ tourists to “take part in a traditional harvest activity” adding to their holidays an agri- or eco- particle, while many tourist agents offer relevant packages across Greece: Kythera, Euboea, Lesvos and of course Crete. What is more, natural resources have been added in trail maps, as must-see landmarks, next to archaeological sites and nice viewpoints. The ‘monumental olive trees’ of Crete as developed by the ACOM fall in this category, without though proposing a possible trail route. A -relevant to this- project, run at the El Sénia area in North East Spain, managed to claim a prize from Europa Nostra in 2014. The Taula del Sénia Commonwealth and the Servei d’Ocupació de Catalunya compiled an inventory of the monumental trees in the area, promoting at the same time a ‘unique product’, the ‘aceite de oliva virgen extra de olivos milenarios’, in other words: ‘the extra virgin oil of the millenary olive trees’.

Whether these examples will evolve in viable projects that will side agricultural activity or swallow it, in favour of the ‘touristicIMG_7499 experience’ as in e.g. the Napa Valley pattern, is an issue that remains to be seen. Currently, the signs are not in favour of the receding primary sector, while natural resources face a number of dangers: Note, for example, the eradication of olive trees for other crop cultivation or logging for heating and furniture manufacturing. Various projects have been developed attempting to create a balance between the two, in the name of ‘sustainable development’, the pet theory of European Union; however, not free of pitfalls. In passing, one could mention the project ‘Water Routes’ for the preservation of traditional edifices of water management on the island of Amorgos (2010), or the ‘Rainwater Harvesting: A Multi-Stakeholder Pilot Project in the Cyclades Islands’ run by the Global Water Partnership – Mediterranean (2008-9). Similar is the pilot project ‘PROTERRA’ for the protection and re-use of the traditional dry stonewalls that divided crop fields and retained soil in the Mediterranean (1996-2001) or the thematic Museum Network developed by the Piraeus Bank Group Cultural Foundation, “with an emphasis on … artisanal and industrial technology”, promoting “the connection of Culture with the Environment”. What is more, a number of seminars are being held on traditional building techniques and materials, protecting and distributing local, knowledge and patterns of practice (an example for traditional building techniques). All these are revolving around the concept of preservation of ‘local and indigenous knowledge systems, LINKS’, as one of the UNESCO’s priority areas is labeled.

As it seems, the olive trees of Crete have much more than olive oil in them; Careful and proactive management for the preservation of the landscape and the securing of the agricultural activity, introducing mild touristic activities to aid local communities should be considered as priorities for local and national administration. IMG_7482

Further reading

Boskou, D., 2008. Characteristics of the olive tree and olive fruit. Accessible at: Last access: 08.02.2015

Chatzi-Vallianou, D., 2002. Ελαιοκαλλιέργεια και ελαιοπαραγωγή στην Κρήτη κατά την αρχαιότητα, στο Ν. Μichelakis (ed.), Ελιά και λάδι στην Κρήτη: Πρακτικά συμποσίου, 86-104

Lavee, S., 1996. Olive tree biology and physiology, in IOOC, World Olive Encyclopedia, 59-106

Michelakis, N., 2002. Μνημειακά ελαιόδεντρα στον κόσμο, στην Ελλάδα και στην Κρήτη, in Ν. Μichelakis (ed.), Ελιά και λάδι στην Κρήτη: Πρακτικά συμποσίου, 32-43

Sarpaki, A., 2013. The economy of Neolithic Knossos: The archaeological data, in N. Esftratiou, A. Karetsou, M. Ntinou (eds), The Neolithic settlement of Knosson in Crete. New elements for the early occupation of Crete and the Aegean islands, 63-94

Turland, N., Chilton, L., Press, N.J., 1997. Flora of the Cretan area. Annotated checklist and atlas. London

Vasilakis, A., 2002. Καλλιέργεια ελιάς και παραγωγής ελαιολάδου στη Μινωική Κρήτη: Μαρτυρίες από τα μνημεία, in Ν. Μichelakis (ed.), Ελιά και λάδι στην Κρήτη: Πρακτικά συμποσίου, 53-65

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