New study of waste found at resting places for travelers along the old Incense Route reveals that trade was a two-way street on this ancient desert artery in the Negev. Contrary to hitherto favored theories, the fearless merchants who traveled on camels transported products to and from the region, a phenomenon that researchers describe as the “premodern process of globalization.”
“We thought the road was mostly one-way. We discovered that a significant amount of the various items we found were also transported by merchants who brought with them shipments of organic material from fertile areas, ”says Professor Guy Bar-Oz, from the University of Haifa. The times of Israel.
“Our most surprising finds are materials that came from the West – that is, from the Mediterranean and the Nile,” he adds. Until now, specialists believed that the trade was carried out from the Arabian Peninsula, that is, from east to west.
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In the recently published study, “Caravanserai Dung Pits on Desert Roads: A New Perspective on the Nabataean-Roman Trade Network in the Negev,” a study published in the World Journal of peer-reviewed archeology Antiquityevery 14 days, the rubbish dumps – or heaps of rubbish – on three small caravan series, the places where caravans of merchants could find refuge and stop, were examined along the Incense Route in an attempt to assess the culture of these nomads and find out exactly where they came from. from.
The Frankincense route had its heyday during the Nabataean and Roman periods (ca. 300 BCE to 300 AD) and connected the Arabian Peninsula and the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. It was the main road used for the transport of spices and perfumes, and small settlements and other caravanseries had settled along this thoroughfare.
“Our goal here is to demonstrate the potential of waste abandoned by commercial caravans like so many social archives, and to understand them as a complementary source of information that allows for a better understanding of the social and economic organization of this type. certain trade “, wrote the authors and in particular Bar-Oz, Roy Galili, Daniel Fuks, Tali Erickson-Gini, Yotam Tepper, Nofar Shamir and Gideon Avni.
“I think this is one of the first times we really get to know the materials that circulated on the Incense route. Many were previously known only through historical sources. These archaeological materials give us new ways to measure and quantify the extent and type of goods that traveled along this route, ”notes Bar-Oz.
Among the organic waste discovered are fish or shellfish from the Nile, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, among others, and fruits, including grapes, olives, pomegranates or peaches, Bar-Oz explains. At the same time, archaeologists found fragments of mosaics originating from Petra in the east.
“Two millennia ago, the trade in perfumed oil and incense resin was extremely important in the communities around the Mediterranean, and it led to long-distance, cross-cultural contact between places as far apart as in South Asia. Southeast, India, Yemen, Alexandria or Rome. That was it , which made the work along the Incense Route so interesting, says Erickson-Gini, of the Israel Antiquities Authority, at The times of Israel.
According to the first-century philosopher Pliny the Elder, it took 62 days to cross the part of the Incense Route that stretched from Yemen to Gaza. And in this segment there were several settlements and a multitude of caravans. Three are listed in the study on the Negev side: Orhan-Mor, Shaar-Ramon and Neqarot Fort.
Examining the waste in smaller caravans, Bar-Oz says, learns a lot about the amount, variety, and type of products ingested along the route.
“It tells us a lot about the ‘economic belt’ that supported the road. It also tells us a lot about the origin of the materials being transported, where they came from, how they were packed and transported. It also tells a lot about the kitchen and consumers’ preferences for the food served along the route, ”points out Bar-Oz.
Although excavations had previously been carried out at several sites along the Frankincense route, “it is the first time that the waste deposited has been the subject of such a wide-ranging study with the support of current technology and scientific analyzes, such as . 14 dating, “said Erickson-Gini The times of Israel.
“The new project uses very careful and demanding methods, and great emphasis has been placed on very small details – shells, animal bones and other organic components. A lot of information can now be collected thanks to very small discoveries like these, ”she continues. Erickson-Gini points out that the arid Negev desert uniquely preserves organic materials, meaning that the finds have “a special significance in terms of quantity and quality compared to other regions”.
The current study is a pilot project that will provide space for future research. In this follow-up search, Bar-Oz plans to look at more distant trash cans on the Incense Route.
“We hope that in the future we will be able to establish a multi-country research initiative on organic products from the old Frankincense Trade Route, which stretched from Oman, Arabia, east of the Mediterranean, and which was the center of international commercial activities. , ”Says Bar-Oz.
“This ambitious joint initiative between different research institutes will allow us to learn from the past, which will have an impact on the future of our society, with the aim of moving us towards more sustainable economies in arid territories,” adds Bar-Oz.
Bar-Oz hopes that this project will also lead to opportunities in the form of tourism development, science and education.
“Only part of the Incense Route runs through Israel. The most studied stretch to date, and also the shortest, crosses the southern part of the country,” explains Erickson-Gini. “Hopefully in the future it will be possible to unite in our work. with researchers from neighboring countries. “