Digging through ancient garbage reveals new perspective on famed Nabatean trade route

Spices and perfumes weren’t the only things being traded on the long-distance Incense Trade Route, say Israeli researchers.

  (photo credit: UNIVERSITY OF HAIFA)
(photo credit: UNIVERSITY OF HAIFA)

The Nabatean Incense Trade Route has long sparked the imagination with exotic images of desert camel caravans laden with fragrant and rare spices and perfumes crossing long expanses of desert to Western consumers hungry for luxury goods.

However, Israeli researchers now say the trade route was a two-way street and included fish from the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, Nile River oysters and exquisite bowls from the Nabataean capital of Petra going back to the East along the trade route.

The ancient trade route was a network of land and sea routes that linked the Arabian Peninsula and Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea in long-distance, crisscrossing journeys across Africa and Eurasia. Activity peaked during the Nabataean and Roman periods between the third century BCE and second century CE.

The main trade route passed through Petra, in modern-day Jordan, via the Ramon Crater and the Negev Hills to the seaport in Gaza.

“Imagine you just reached the port of Gaza with your caravan of camels and unloaded all your wares from the East. What kind of things would you bring back?” asked Prof. Guy Bar-Oz of the School of Archaeology and Marine Cultures at the University of Haifa, who led the study published in the Cambridge University Press journal Antiquity.

  (credit: UNIVERSITY OF HAIFA) (credit: UNIVERSITY OF HAIFA)

Other participants in the study included PhD student Roy Galili from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Prof. Gideon Avni, Dr. Tali Erickson-Gini and Dr. Yotam Tepper from the Antiquities Authority, Dr. Daniel Fox from Cambridge University and research student Nofar Shamir of the University of Haifa.

“The findings reflect the beginnings of globalization processes in the ancient world and the special importance of the Middle East and the desert expanses in particular, at the crossroads of East and West,” said the researchers.

Bar-Oz noted that the history of the trade route has been known from texts written by the ancient consumers of the products in the West, but nothing has been known about it from the perspective of those in the East, where no texts about the route have been found – until now.

“The history has been told by those who wrote in the consumption centers in the West,” he said. “Pliny sitting in Italy tells about the perfumes arriving from the route along 46 stations in 46 days from Yemen to the port in Gaza.”

Archaeological evidence has documented the demand for luxury products brought from the East including frankincense and myrrh, as well as spices such as cinnamon, black pepper, vanilla, cumin, turmeric and ginger. Remains of these ancient luxury goods have also recently been found at archaeological sites in Israel, most recently in Jerusalem in wine jars with residues of vanilla.

While most archaeological research of the trade route had focused on the commodities in transit and on excavations of major centers along it, the Israeli researchers turned their attention toward the ancient garbage dumps of smaller “caravanserai,” small public buildings used for sheltering caravans and other travelers usually built outside the walls of towns and villages.

THE ONLY WAY to discover information about the eastern direction of the route, Bar-Oz said, is to dig through the archaeological remains along the ancient pit stops.

Focusing on the raw material that passed along the route by the caravans along their journey, the researchers dug up piles of garbage that had accumulated in the three main stations in the Negev Desert: at the Othan Mor (Moa) stopover and Sha’ar Ramon (Khan Saharonim), both of which served as hostels for the merchants leading the caravans, and also on the side of caverns that served as guard posts to protect the road against marauders.

They hoped the garbage they found would help them answer more questions about how the caravans functioned, about which there is little information, said Bar-Oz.

To get to the bottom of the question, the researchers excavated through domestic waste that included animal bones, human excrement, botanical material, mollusk shells, potsherds and other artifacts.

“Inside the rubbish dumps, we hoped to find the food scraps and utensils used to prepare the food,” he said. “Among other things, we wanted to use the variety of raw materials discovered to determine in which direction the trading caravans traveled. Did the merchant convoys carry goods only from east to west, or did trade flourish in the opposite direction and the caravans return laden on the way back as well?”

Their excavation discovered evidence of an expansive local economy that supported the trading caravans, including bones from sheep, pigs, game animals, as well as chicken eggshells, fish bones, several types of seafood from the Mediterranean and Red seas, and remnants of edible oysters from the Nile River.

They also found a variety of seeds from fruits such as grapes and peaches, and grains and legumes. Researchers say the large number of olive and date seeds uncovered reflects the importance of these agricultural products in the trade route economy.

According to Bar-Oz, the remains are an indication of the foods available to the caravan merchants at the ancient desert rest stops along the trade route, known as khans, and what was traded on the way back to the East.

In addition to food remains, archaeologists also found fragments of luxury Nabataean pottery and glass they believe were traded to the East.

“It is like in rest areas along highways, you can find a McDonalds. Part of what we found is what was sold to the caravan merchants and part was the commodities moved along the route,” said Bar-Oz. “It very much reminds me of the 25-day trek I did in the Himalayas. As you move up the mountain, you can buy a Coca-Cola, but it will be more expensive than on the bottom. You can decide to do without a cola, but as you go up, the more expensive it will be.”

Bar-Oz said they identified three main trends: an intercontinental trade with a central axis to Southeast Asia; another one that connected marine sources, especially between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea; and local trade that formed the sort of “economic belt” of the road supplying raw materials and food for the travelers on the road.

“This really sparks the imagination,” the study’s leader said. “This is not just history. You can actually touch it. You can do analysis and tell what the varieties were, where they came from. It is just a snapshot, but it gives you the desire to do more research and investigation.”