New Study Examines Evidence for Ancient Salt Industry in Israel
Salt is essential to the human diet and is an integral element in many industries, including leatherwork, textile production, and food processing. Yet, pure salt can also be very hard to come by in large quantities. As a result, in antiquity, salt harvesting was a lucrative industry in areas that were able to meet demand. According to a recent scholarly article, one particular region of ancient Israel benefited from this industry—no, not the salt and mineral-rich Dead Sea, but the area along Israel’s northern coast, around the modern city of Haifa.
A team from the University of Haifa identified dozens of salt installations in the immediate vicinity of the coastal city, many of which had been used and reused for hundreds of years, between 200 B.C.E and 1300 C.E. In some areas, where access was easier, these installations were often no more than simple cuts in shoreline rocks that caught salt from crashing waves. In other places, long channels and wells meant to capture salt were carved deep into the sandstone.
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Although none of the installations could be dated to before 200 B.C.E, the researchers believe salt production was likely taking place in the land long before that time. One piece of evidence is ancient place names. The obscure biblical town of Misrephoth-Maim, mentioned twice in Joshua (11:8 and 13:6), is one example, as the town’s name translates to “burning of water,” a possible reference to the evaporation pools often used in salt production.
Israel’s northern coast is a perfect place for harvesting salt, as the coastline’s hard sandstone and thick clay beds are ideal for trapping seawater that then leaves behind salt as it evaporates. The hot Mediterranean summers also allow for an annual dry season during which salt can be harvested.
Salt played a key role in many societies as a dietary staple, but it was also used for currency, sacrificial offerings, and tax payments. The Bible specifically mentions the use of salt for sacrifice several times: “You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt” (Leviticus 2:13); and Jesus famously calls his disciples “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13).
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The City of Salt by Zvi Greenhut
Salt from the Garamantes by Mario Liverani
Biblical Archaeology 101: The Ancient Diet of Roman Palestine by Susan Weingarten
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