Bedouin community unearth oldest soap ‘factory’ in Israel

The soap making workshop was not the only finding that offered insights on the life in the region in the 9th century CE: the materials to play very popular board games were also uncovered.

The ancient soapery discovered in an Israeli excavation (photo credit: EMIL ALADJEM/ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)
The ancient soapery discovered in an Israeli excavation
(photo credit: EMIL ALADJEM/ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)
The oldest soap-making workshop in Israel has been discovered in an excavation conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority in the Bedouin town of Rahat in the Negev in cooperation with the local community, the IAA announced on Sunday.
Dating back to the early Islamic period – about 1,200 years ago – the facility was unearthed inside the house of an affluent family, who likely made their wealth through the business of producing and selling olive oil soap.
“This is the first time that a soap workshop as ancient as this has been discovered, allowing us to recreate the traditional production process of the soap industry. For this reason, it is quite unique,” Dr. Elena Kogen Zehavi, the IAA excavation director, said in a press release. “We are familiar with important soap-making centers from a much later period – the Ottoman period. These were discovered in Jerusalem, Nablus, Jaffa and Gaza.”
The excavation included participants made up of hundreds of young people, university students, and students in pre-military preparatory programs, from Rahat and the area (Credit: Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)The excavation included participants made up of hundreds of young people, university students, and students in pre-military preparatory programs, from Rahat and the area (Credit: Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)
Researchers in the field identified residues that were collected in order to understand more about the production process.
A blend of olive oil and ashes resulting from burning salsola soda (saltwort) plants containing potash and water was cooked for about a week. The liquid obtained was afterwards moved to a shallow pool and left hardened for several days, until the soap was ready to be cut in bars, which then dried for another two months. The outcome was a crucial staple in an area where the heat, sand and wind made personal hygiene especially demanding.
The soap making workshop was not the only finding that offered insights on life in the region in the 9th century CE, as materials to play very popular board games were also uncovered.
“One of the underground spaces of the wealthy building contained another exciting finding, shedding light on the daily life of the inhabitants – a round limestone game board used for a strategy game called the ‘Windmill.’ This game is known to have existed as early as the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE (the Roman period), and it is still being played to this very day,” said Svetlana Tallis, IAA Northern Negev District archaeologist.
The 'Windmill' board game (Credit: Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)The 'Windmill' board game (Credit: Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)
To witness the owners’ fondness for this pastime, perhaps to while away the time during the long and windy winter nights or the unbearably hot summer days, the researchers found the board of another game, known as “Hounds and Jackals , ” or “Fifty-eight Holes.” The game was known to be played already in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia at least 4,000 years ago and it apparently involved two players throwing dice or sticks in order to advance on the board and reach a specific point. Artifacts connected to the game have been previously uncovered in Israel in the sites of Megiddo and Tel Beth Shan.
The excavation at Rahat, supervised by Kogen-Zehavi, with the help of Dr. Yael Abadi-Rice and Avinoam Lehavi, was initiated in the process of preparing the ground for a new neighborhood in the 70,000-strong city. The project has become an opportunity to get the local community involved. According to the IAA press release, hundreds of youth and adults have been employed at the dig, including participants from among the local Bedouin residents, university students and students in pre-military preparatory programs.
“The excavation has revealed the Islamic roots of Rahat. We are proud of the excavation and happy that it took place in cooperation with the local community. We enjoy good relations with the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Authority for Development and Settlement of the Bedouin in the Negev, and we hope to construct a visitors’ center that tourists and the local community will be able to enjoy,” said Rahat Mayor Fahiz Abu Saheeben.
Another game found at the site was called “Hounds and Jackals,” or “58 Holes" (Credit: Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)Another game found at the site was called “Hounds and Jackals,” or “58 Holes" (Credit: Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)