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Archaeologists Find 1,200-Year-Old Soap Factory in Israel

To create the cleaning concoction, ancient workers mixed olive oil with ashes from saltwort plants

Excavations at this site in Israel's Negev Desert yielded evidence of olive oil soap manufacturing dating back roughly 1,200 years. (Emil Aladjem / Israel Antiquities Authority)
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A 1,200-year-old soap-making workshop unearthed near Rahat in the Negev Desert is the oldest found in Israel to date, reports Rossella Tercatin for the Jerusalem Post.

Archaeologists discovered the ancient facility, located within what was once a large, luxurious home, while conducting excavations ahead of a new construction project. The affluent family that lived in the compound likely accumulated its wealth by 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,” says Elena Kogen Zehavi, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), in a statement quoted by the Post. “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.”

As Ruth Schuster notes for Haaretz, the earliest known evidence of soap-making is a nearly 5,000-year-old cuneiform inscription detailing the process of washing wool in preparation for dyeing. Researchers are unsure if the Mesopotamians who produced the soap used it to clean their bodies, but either way, Zehavi tells Haaretz, the substance—made using ash, water and fat—would have been very different from the solid bar soap of modern times.

Though the ancient Romans also produced soap, they didn’t appear to recognize its potential for enhancing personal hygiene, writes Judith Ridner, a historian at Mississippi State University, for the Conversation. Instead, the Romans’ post-bath ritual involved anointing the body with oils and scraping excess grease away with a metal or reed tool known as a strigil.

The first appearance of soap as people might recognize it today dates to the seventh century A.D., when Arabic chemists combined vegetable and aromatic oils with sodium lye, according to Haaretz.

Ancient board game
An ancient game board found at the Rahat site (Emil Aladjem / Israel Antiquities Authority)

Amanda Borschel-Dan of the Times of Israel reports that IAA archaeologists decoded the soap workshop’s centuries-old recipe by studying traces of organic material. They concluded that the factory’s workers mixed olive oil with ashes from saltwort plants, which contain high concentrations of potassium and are a rich natural source of potash salts, and cooked the concoction for seven days. Workers then poured the mixture into a shallow basin, allowing it to harden for around ten days before slicing it into bars. After two months of drying, the bars were sold as soap.

Excavations at the Rahat site also revealed a pair of ancient board games. One was a round limestone disc thought to have been used in a strategy game called Windmill.

“This game is known to have existed as early as the second and third centuries [A.D., or the Roman period], and it is still being played to this very day,” says Svetlana Tallis, an archaeologist with IAA’s Northern Negev District, in a statement quoted by Haaretz.

The other stone board was used to play Hounds and Jackals, or 58 Holes, per the Post. Popular in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the game’s history stretches back at least 4,000 years; to play, two competitors tossed sticks or dice to determine their game pieces’ movement across the board.

Archaeologists conducted the excavation in collaboration with hundreds of local volunteers, reports the Times. In the statement, Rahat’s mayor, Fahiz Abu Saheeben, says he hopes to eventually build a visitors’ center that celebrates the region’s deep history.

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