Israeli Archaeologists: 3,000-year-old Cinnamon Traces Attest to Ancient Trade

The spice's discovery in Phoenician flasks show trading relations existed between the Levant and southeast Asia a thousand years before the Roman Empire.

Somewhere in the country “where Dionysus grew up” — that’s Ethiopia — live large birds that build nests out of mud on sheer cliffs. "These great birds bring the sticks which we Greeks, taking the word from the Phoenicians, call cinnamon, and carry them up into the air to make their nests,” wrote the Greek historian Herodotus in the fifth century B.C.E.

In his masterpiece "The Histories," Herodotus described how the local residents, “the Arabs,” would trick the birds into giving up the cinnamon. They would place large chunks of ox, donkey or other animal below the birds’ nests. The birds would bring the meat to their nest, which would then collapse to the ground under their weight. The people would collect the cinnamon sticks, which then found their way to other countries.

This exotic story teaches us two things: Herodotus and his contemporaries in Europe were familiar with cinnamon, or at least were aware of its existence, but they but knew next to nothing about where it grew or how it was distributed.

Historians and archaeologists were not surprised at Herodotus' ignorance of cinnamon's provenance. The ancient Greeks' geographical knowledge of Arabia and southern Asia was vague at best. If they knew of the spice at all, it was thought more likely that some cinnamon had trickled into the West through merchants from Arabia, who had an interest in concealing their sources and spinning fantastic tales to raise the value of their wares.

So the Greeks evidently knew of it, but historians and archaeologists believed that in Herodotus’s time, cinnamon use was confined to the area where the tree grew naturally — south and southeast Asia. Now new evidence uncovered at a site on the Israeli coast indicates that trade took place a thousand years earlier than thought, some 3,000 years ago and centuries before Herodotus.

A precious liquid

The story begins with a series of unique flasks dating from the 11th and 9th centuries B.C.E., found at Tel Dor (Tantura) on the coast south of Haifa earlier this year, where Dr. Ayelet Gilboa of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa has been running the excavations together with Professor Ilan Sharon of the Hebrew University.

The flasks were identified as Phoenician. But the Israeli archaeologists' curiosity was piqued by their decoration.

Typical Phoenician pottery was plain. These flasks were small, symmetrically decorated collection vessels with narrow openings with a capacity of about 50 milliliters (about three tablespoons). Their walls were thick, indicating that the liquid they held was precious: effort had been made to keep the vessels from breaking. They held wine or oil that seems to have served a ritual, medical or cosmetic purpose, to which various spices were added.

The flasks found at Telephony Dor were intriguing enough to birth an inter-university project – "Reconstructing Ancient (Biblical) Israel: The Exact and Life Sciences Perspective," led by Yisrael Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University, Steve Weiner of the Weizmann Institute of Science, and chemists Dvory Namdar of Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute and Ronny Neumann of the Weizmann Institute of Science. The project is based on applying the life sciences and exact science to archaeology.

Being organic material, wine, olive oil and spices decompose in far less time than 3,000 years, Dr. Gilboa says. But Namdar and Neumann used residue analysis to see what the flasks had contained – and were surprised to discover that many contained traces of cinnamon.

“Namdar and her colleagues found that 10 of the flasks, which made up more than a third of the flasks we sampled from various sites, had traces of cinnamaldehyde,” Gilboa says. “This molecule is naturally found in significant amounts only in the cinnamon plant, mainly in the bark. In ancient times, the cinnamon tree grew only in southern and southeast Asia. Dvory Namdar, the project’s chief chemist, never found any traces of cinnamon in any of the other ancient vessels she examined before.”

Pepper in Pharaoh's mummy

The finding dramatically changes what we know about commerce in ancient times. Until now it had been believed that wide-scale spice trading from India and southeast Asia began only during the time of the Roman Empire, roughly a thousand years after the period of the Phoenician flasks. The cinnamaldehyde found inside the vessels is the first archaeological evidence of regular trade between the Levant and southeast Asia between the 11th and ninth centuries B.C.E.

Gilboa says that the finding is also surprising because according to the conventional approach, regional and inter-regional trade along the coast had become scanty at most. Even Egypt, the largest empire in the area at the time, was suffering one of the worst political, economic and commercial declines in its history.

Yet archaeobotany (the study of ancient plants) and archaeozoology (the study of animals whose bones were found at archaeological sites) reveal that other plant matter was traveling long distances along the trade routes as far back as the second millennium B.C.E. Plants were found to have traveled between India, China and the east coast of Africa. One of the most intriguing bits of evidence are grains of black pepper, a spice that grew only in India, in the mummy of Pharaoh Ramesses II, who ruled in the 13th century B.C.E.

How did cinnamon arrive from India, or perhaps even from Sri Lanka or China, to the Phoenician coast?

Perhaps the Phoenicians, known masters of sailing and navigation, did business with the people of India, and brought cinnamon from there in their ships. But this theory can't be proven, Gilboa says. In any case she thinks it much more likely that the powder simply passed from one trader to another by land, by sea and via the large rivers, all the way from India to Dor and to other Phoenician cities such as Tyre.

However it happened, says Gilboa, the cinnamon residue that was found inside the flasks may be evidence that in fact there was very wide-spread trade indeed.

“Like any other organic material, cinnamon bark breaks down almost completely, and the chance of finding it or other spices in an archaeological excavation is extremely slim,” she says. “We were lucky that someone in Phoenicia apparently started a side business, adding spices such as cinnamon or perhaps also nutmeg (which grew only on the Banda Islands in Indonesia, and we may have found traces of it in the flasks as well) to valuable liquids such as wine or oil. That’s how we learned about the cinnamon trade. It’s also clear that the spices did not go from place to place in the trade networks that were developed and controlled by large political powers such as Assyria or Egypt, or Rome later on. Rather, it was conducted via connections and cooperation between small companies that transported the spices over thousands of kilometers from the east.”

Pavel Shargo
Pavel Shargo