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Archaeologists Uncover Ancient Maritime Spice Route Between India, Egypt
Popular Science ^ | 2-8-2004

Posted on 02/08/2004 12:57:17 PM PST by blam

Archaeologists Uncover Ancient Maritime Spice Route Between India, Egypt

Archaeologists from UCLA and the University of Delaware have unearthed the most extensive remains to date from sea trade between India and Egypt during the Roman Empire, adding to mounting evidence that spices and other exotic cargo traveled into Europe over sea as well as land.

"These findings go a long way toward improving our understanding of the way in which a whole range of exotic cargo moved into Europe during antiquity," said Willeke Wendrich, an assistant professor of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at UCLA and co-director of the project. "When cost and political conflict prevented overland transport, ancient mariners took to the Red Sea, and the route between India and Egypt appears to have been even more productive than we ever thought."

"The Silk Road gets a lot of attention as a trade route, but we've found a wealth of evidence indicating that sea trade between Egypt and India was also important for transporting exotic cargo, and it may have even served as a link with the Far East," added fellow co-director Steven E. Sidebotham, a history professor at the University of Delaware.

Wendrich and Sidebotham report their findings in the July issue of the scholarly journal Sahara.

For the past eight years, the researchers have led an international team of archaeologists who have excavated Berenike, a long-abandoned Egyptian port on the Red Sea near the border with Sudan.

Among the buried ruins of buildings that date back to Roman rule, the team discovered vast quantities of teak, a wood indigenous to India and today's Myanmar, but not capable of growing in Egypt, Africa or Europe. Researchers believe the teak, which dates to the first century, came to the desert port as hulls of shipping vessels. When the ships became worn out or damaged beyond repair, Berenike residents recycled the wood for building materials, the researchers said. The team also found materials consistent with ship-patching activities, including copper nails and metal sheeting.

"You'd expect to find woods native to Egypt like mangrove and acacia," Sidebotham said. "But the largest amount of wood we found at Berenike was teak."

In addition to this evidence of seafaring activities between India and Egypt, the archaeologists uncovered the largest array of ancient Indian goods ever found along the Red Sea, including the largest single cache of black pepper from antiquity - 16 pounds - ever excavated in the former Roman Empire. The team dates these peppercorns, which were grown only in South India during antiquity, to the first century. Peppercorns of the same vintage have been excavated as far away as Germany.

"Spices used in Europe during antiquity may have passed through this port," Wendrich said.

In some cases, Egypt's dry climate even preserved organic material from India that has never been found in the more humid subcontinent, including sailcloth dated to between A.D. 30 and 70, as well as basketry and matting from the first and second centuries.

In a dump that dates back to Roman times, the team also found Indian coconuts and batik cloth from the first century, as well as an array of exotic gems, including sapphires and glass beads that appear to come from Sri Lanka, and carnelian beads that appear to come from India.

Three beads found on the surface of excavation sites in Berenike suggested even more exotic origins. One may have come from eastern Java, while the other two appear to have come either from Vietnam or Thailand, but the team has been unable to date any of them.

While the researchers say it is unlikely that Berenike traded directly with eastern Java, Vietnam or Thailand, they say their discoveries raise the possibility that cargo was finding its way to the Egyptian port from the Far East, probably via India.

The team also found the remains of cereal and animals indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa, pointing to the possibility of a three-point trade route that took goods from southern Africa to India and then back across the Indian Ocean to Egypt.

"We talk today about globalism as if it were the latest thing, but trade was going on in antiquity at a scale and scope that is truly impressive," said Wendrich, who made most of her contributions as a post-doctoral fellow at Leiden University in the Netherlands. "These people were taking incredible risks with their lives and fortune to make money."

Along with the rest of Egypt, Berenike was controlled by the Roman Empire during the first and second centuries. During the same period, the overland route to Europe from India through Pakistan, Iran and Mesopotamia (today's Iraq) was controlled by adversaries of the Roman Empire, making overland roads difficult for Roman merchants. Meanwhile, Roman texts that address the relative costs of different shipping methods describe overland transport as at least 20 times more expensive than sea trade.

"Overland transport was incredibly expensive, so whenever possible people in antiquity preferred shipping, which was vastly cheaper," Sidebotham said.

With such obstacles to overland transport, the town at the southernmost tip of the Roman Empire flourished as a "transfer port," accepting cargo from India that was later moved overland and up the Nile to Alexandria, the researchers contend. Poised on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, Alexandria has a well-documented history of trade with Europe going back to antiquity.

Over the course of the grueling project, the researchers retraced a route that they believe would have moved cargo from Berenike into Europe. Wendrich and Sidebotham contend cargo was shipped across the Indian Ocean and north through the Red Sea to Berenike, which is located about 160 miles east of today's Aswan Dam. They believe the goods were then carried by camels or donkeys some 240 miles northeast to the Nile River, where smaller boats waited to transport the cargo north to Alexandria. Cargo is known to have moved during antiquity from Alexandria across the Mediterranean to a dozen major Roman ports and hundreds of minor ones.

The team believes that Berenike was the biggest and most active of six ports in the Red Sea until some point after A.D. 500, when shipping activities mysteriously stopped.

Shipping activities at Berenike were mentioned in ancient texts that were rediscovered in the Middle Ages, but the port's precise location eluded explorers until the early 19th century. The former port's proximity to an Egyptian military base kept archaeologists at bay until 1994, when Wendrich and Sidebotham made the first successful appeal for a large-scale excavation. At the time, Egyptian officials, eager to develop the Red Sea as a tourist destination, had started to relax prohibitions against foreign access to the region. But the area's isolation remains a challenge for the team, which has to truck in food and water, and to power computers and microscopes with solar panels.

"The logistics are really tough there," said Wendrich, who is affiliated with the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA.


TOPICS: Egypt; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: ancientnavigation; anthropology; archaeologists; archaeology; catastrophism; economic; egypt; fell; ggg; godsgravesglyphs; heyerdahl; history; india; navigation; romanempire; route; silkroute; spice; spicetrade; uncover
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"some point after A.D. 500, when shipping activities mysteriously stopped."

It looks like that prior to 500AD trade (and knowledge) with India was fairly wide spread through-out the Mediterranean. So, why was Colombus looking for a 'sea-route' in 1492?

Saty tuned and I'll tell you.

1 posted on 02/08/2004 12:57:18 PM PST by blam
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To: farmfriend
Ping.
2 posted on 02/08/2004 12:58:05 PM PST by blam
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To: blam
In Columbus' time Egypt was under Muslim rule, and it wasn't practical for Europeans to travel via Egypt and the Red Sea to get to India. The Portuguese had discovered the route around Africa by 1488, but Columbus thought it would be easier and shorter to sail directly west across the Atlantic...because he thought the world was much smaller than it really is, and didn't know that there was a landmass in the way.
3 posted on 02/08/2004 1:11:38 PM PST by Verginius Rufus
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To: Verginius Rufus
In Columbus' time Egypt was under Muslim rule, and it wasn't practical for Europeans to travel via Egypt and the Red Sea to get to India. The Portuguese had discovered the route around Africa by 1488, but Columbus thought it would be easier and shorter to sail directly west across the Atlantic...because he thought the world was much smaller than it really is, and didn't know that there was a landmass in the way.

In 1492, the Portugese had exclusive rights to trade with India by sailing Eastward, either around the Cape or by dealing with the islamic Middle East.

Columbus was working for the Spanish who were looking for a rival way to trade with the Indies.

So9

4 posted on 02/08/2004 1:51:37 PM PST by Servant of the 9 (Goldwater Republican)
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To: blam
The Byzantines lost Egypt in 640 A.D., so cessation of this trade with Europe at that point isn't much of a mystery.
5 posted on 02/08/2004 1:56:14 PM PST by KellyAdmirer
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To: blam
While some may have hoped to get to the East by sailing West, Columbus was not one of them at the time he sailed.

Having been to Greenland and the Norse domains, he suspected that the landmass he had seen as Labrador extended all the way down as Plato had said, being the true "continent" or piecrust, that contained the three-lobed Eur/Asi/Africa world as an island floating in the middle of the pie... This all as would be seen from a spacecraft over Cairo, BTW

It was only after Columbus' first voyage that he, and the Euro world in general, went wild with India and China expectations. Why? They had found "Asiatics," "Indians" in their words... therefore these countries must be near, or connected to, Asia. Before that, Columbus had not expected such: his contract referred only to "certain islands and mainlands in the Western Ocean not now subject to any Christian prince." No mention of Asia.

Had blacks been found, the lands would have been assumed to connect to Africa in the south. Had whites been found, the lands would have been presumed to connect to Europe in the north, near Scandinavia. Had the lands been uninhabited, then maybe their true position would have been more quickly understood; that, after all, is what Columbus EXPECTED to be the case.

Instead, Asiatics were found, in Columbus' opinion. Thus the peoples found are forever "Indians," and the legend that Asia was his original intent, rather than the sudden bonanza hope that entered his head after finding the inhabitants.... was born... And has never fully died.
6 posted on 02/08/2004 2:08:25 PM PST by Chris Talk (What Earth now is, Mars once was. What Mars now is, Earth will one day be.)
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To: blam
BTW, no mystery at all about why trade stopped after 500!

What caused it? Muhammad, Muzzies, Muslims, Islam, and all other such words. Violent Arabs and their exorbitant thefts and baksheesheries.
7 posted on 02/08/2004 2:10:17 PM PST by Chris Talk (What Earth now is, Mars once was. What Mars now is, Earth will one day be.)
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To: Chris Talk
"BTW, no mystery at all about why trade stopped after 500!

"What caused it? Muhammad, Muzzies, Muslims, Islam, and all other such words. Violent Arabs and their exorbitant thefts and baksheesheries."

Nah. It was the (worldwide) Dark Ages that began 540AD+-. Many, many people worldwide died.

8 posted on 02/08/2004 4:22:42 PM PST by blam
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To: blam
"So, why was Colombus looking for a 'sea-route' in 1492?"

Wasn't it because the Venetians had a lock on this trade,
and they didn't share toys or play well with others?


9 posted on 02/08/2004 6:48:51 PM PST by John Beresford Tipton
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To: blam; *Gods, Graves, Glyphs; A.J.Armitage; abner; adam_az; AdmSmith; Alas Babylon!; ...
Gods, Graves, Glyphs
List for articles regarding early civilizations , life of all forms, - dinosaurs - etc.

Let me know if you wish to be added or removed from this ping list.

10 posted on 02/08/2004 7:40:27 PM PST by farmfriend ( Isaiah 55:10,11)
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To: farmfriend
very interesting... my idea of the spice route was my grandmother coming to America every five years with a suitcase full of curry and pepper.
11 posted on 02/08/2004 7:42:47 PM PST by cyborg
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To: Servant of the 9
I don't think the Portuguese had exclusive rights in the 1400s. That was only crated in the 1500s when the Spanisha nd Portuguese asked the Pope to arbitrate. He drew a line on the globe and said that the Portuguese could control the lands to the east of the line -- that's why Brazil was Portuguese and the Phillipines spanish.
12 posted on 02/09/2004 1:47:01 AM PST by Cronos (W2004!)
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To: blam
Actually there's evidence of trade between Sumeria and India from 3000 BC, so trade around the time of the Roman Empire is comparatively recent.
13 posted on 02/09/2004 1:47:59 AM PST by Cronos (W2004!)
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To: Chris Talk
No mention of Asia.

The concept of "Asia" in the 1500s was still Roman, where Asia referred to present day Turkey only. China was Cathay and India, well, India.
14 posted on 02/09/2004 1:49:14 AM PST by Cronos (W2004!)
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To: Chris Talk
Instead, Asiatics were found, in Columbus' opinion. Thus the peoples found are forever "Indians," and the legend that Asia was his original intent, rather than the sudden bonanza hope that entered his head after finding the inhabitants.... was born... And has never fully died.

Incorrect. He was looking for India, for trade and for the spices and textiles that Europe so desperately wanted. He saw non-European, non-African complexions and said "hooray, Ive reached India"
15 posted on 02/09/2004 1:50:42 AM PST by Cronos (W2004!)
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To: Cronos
I don't think the Portuguese had exclusive rights in the 1400s. That was only crated in the 1500s when the Spanisha nd Portuguese asked the Pope to arbitrate.

Yep, you're right.
Until the fall of Constantinople in 1452, it was the Venetians who had exclusive control of trade through the Middle East.
At any rate, the Spanish were odd man out, because they were not a unified nation until the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in 1469 and the reconquest of Granada in 1492.
The Portugese had been the great explorers of the last half of the 15th century and had grabbed everything the Venetians had lost control of.

So9

16 posted on 02/09/2004 5:55:29 AM PST by Servant of the 9 (Goldwater Republican)
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To: blam
There probably was some kind of global cooling darkening event circa 540, but the Genoese monopoly on the Arab spice trade is what had the Portuguese looking for a route around Africa in the late 1400s. The search for the source of the spice would send them around Africa to India and ultimately to a group of islands near Borneo, also to Brazil as an accidental by-product of their constant sailing around Africa.
17 posted on 02/09/2004 6:04:08 AM PST by VadeRetro
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To: Servant of the 9
The Portugese had been the great explorers of the last half of the 15th century and had grabbed everything the Venetians had lost control of.

THe Portugueses and Spanish had a lot more scruples than the Venetians. Venice built it's city on blood money. They were the ones who diverted the Crusades into attacking Constantinople to rob the riches of Byzantium. These Venetians were the ones who weakend Byzantine, makign it easy prey for hte Turks. they were also instrumental in causing the animostiy between east and west Christendom (can you blame the Eastern Christians who find that hte Franks are as bad, or worse than the muslims?)
18 posted on 02/09/2004 6:04:24 AM PST by Cronos (W2004!)
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To: Cronos
THe Portugueses and Spanish had a lot more scruples than the Venetians.

They were all Democrrats at heart.
A Democrat being someone who, if you don't give him what he wants, will steal it from you.

Think Howard Dean with a sword.

So9

19 posted on 02/09/2004 6:11:20 AM PST by Servant of the 9 (Goldwater Republican)
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To: Chris Talk
Don't forget, he was also looking for the Kingdom of Prester John and a route to attack the Ottoman Empire from behind. One of Columbus' great goals was to free the Holy Land.
Spices and gold were just immediate paybacks for his royal investors.
20 posted on 02/09/2004 6:20:01 AM PST by Little Ray (Why settle for a Lesser Evil? Vote Cthuhlu for President!)
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