Oysters in Desert Reveal Secrets of Incense Route Trade 2,300 Years Ago

Asian spices reached the Mediterranean via Arabia in the third century B.C.E. What went in the other direction, or did the camels go home empty?

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Shaar Ramon. The garbage can be seen on the right, near the entrance gate.
Shaar Ramon. The garbage can be seen on the right, near the entrance gate.Credit: Roi Galili
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Oysters. Not kosher and not aphrodisiac either, yet this spiky bivalve has been popular since the dawn of human history. They may even have been on the Neanderthal menu. And now we learn that oysters from the Nile, as well as crabs and ocean fish, were among the delicacies eaten by merchants traveling along the Incense Route linking southern Arabia to the Mediterranean ports starting from the third century B.C.E. and ending in the second century C.E.

The Incense Route stretches more than 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) long, and is famed less for transporting mollusks and more for the import of exotic perfume and spices from Southeast Asia (apparently from Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka). Indeed, it cannot be said that the marine finds now reported in Incense Route stations in the Negev were the subject of far-flung trade; they were probably merely eaten, rarely, at Nabatean hostels.

In any case, the oysters didn't come from southern Yemen where the Incense Route began, and weren't aqua-cultured in the ancient Negev. The Egyptian oysters, freshwater crabs and Mediterranean Sea fish whose bones were found in Nabatean garbage along the route had to have been brought to the hostels likely by caravans themselves headed back to Arabia.

The ancient Romans doted on the oyster, but it's all about location isn't it. Not many shells were found; oysters in the Negev were probably – as they are today – something of an extravagance. But how was this deep-desert penchant for oysters discovered?

Archaeologists studying long-distance ancient trades (the Silk Road connecting China and the West, the trans-Sahara routes and the Incense Route) tend to focus on bustling centers – for instance, Elusa, a pagan village that rose to Incense Route greatness.

Oysters on the Grande Île du Bindy. Live oysters would not have been transported along the Incense Route. Credit: Moreau.henri

Not so this new paper by Prof. Guy Bar-Oz from the School of Archaeology and Marine Cultures at the University of Haifa and colleagues in the journal of Antiquity, Yotam Tepper on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority and more. This team studied detritus pits at “roadside hotels” – three desert caravanserai along the Incense Route.

Though much is known about it by now, such as where it began (southern Yemen) and ended (Gaza) – and Pliny the Elder told us where the roadside stations for the relief and enjoyment of merchants were – there has been a mystery about the Incense Route, Bar-Oz explains.

We know exotic spices were being sailed in from the Indian Ocean, probably from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and more to Arabia. From Arabia, the spices were carried by camel or some other complaisant quadruped to the Mediterranean coast.

Thus, we find vanilla from the far-flung East in ancient Jerusalem and Megiddo, and cinnamon, black pepper, turmeric and other exotic flavorings in ancient Israel and Judah.

Finds at the Incense station Neqarot Fort: a: parts of oyster; b: deer jaw; c: Mediterranean oyster; and d: thread woven from date leaves.Credit: Roi Galili

Frankincense and myrrh originating in Oman and northern Yemen also made the camel trip to our region and from here, to beyond. (Why weren’t these loads of exotica simply shipped by boat up the Red Sea to Eilat? Why carry them up the Arabian Peninsula by animal? The direction of the winds, Bar-Oz explains.)

Anyway, the mystery has been this: when the spices et cetera were sold around Israel and the Levant, was it for money? Or were they bartered for goods that were then taken by caravan back to Arabia?

It could have been both. But it makes horse sense that if one induced one's camels to walk from Yemen to Gaza – a 46-day trip – one would utilize them to carry something back. But it had not been demonstrated, let alone proven, that the camel trains returned. Now it has been shown they did, even if the specific cargo being transported from the Mediterranean to Arabia remains mysterious.

Petra, the trading hub of the Nabataeans.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

In the rubbish dumps

The hostels the team studied were Othan Mor, Shaar Ramon (Khan Saharonim) and Neqarot Fort, points along the leg of the Incense Route between Petra in Jordan to Gaza on the Mediterranean coast.

To get this conundrum out of the way, nobody thinks camel trains were carrying aquaria to sustain live fish and seafood for weeks as they crossed the desert. Any oysters, crabs and fish and whatnot had to have been dried, possibly salted. Surely live fish would have been enormously prized and historic sources indicate they cost many times as much as fish jerky, but there are limits.

“Inside the rubbish dumps, we hoped to find the food scraps and utensils used to prepare the food,” Bar-Oz explains. “Among other things, we wanted to use the variety of raw materials discovered to determine in which direction the trading caravans traveled.” Thusly they could find out whether the merchant convoys carried goodies only from east to west, or whether trade flourished in the opposite direction too.

Prof. Tepper clarifies that what they found was evidence of what the merchants ate and drank, but not the cargo they carried. “We found the day-to-day detritus from meals. The question remains what they they were carrying in those caravans returning from the Mediterranean,” he says.

Date seeds found at Othan Mor.Credit: Roi Galili

The Incense Route shut down in the third century as the Romans spread. Trading may have moved to other channels, Tepper says.

Shellfish envy

Garbology has become all the rage in archaeological circles, but aren’t historical records helpful – the Incense Route having existed entirely in the historical period? History is written by the bank manager, Bar-Oz sniffs, in an economic riff on the winner writing the battle narrative.

“The Nabateans and Omanis didn’t write. So there were no written orders," for example, he explains.

A plate of fresh raw oysters with lemon and parsley: not how they would have been served in the desert.Credit: Sarah Swetlik /AP

In other words, the team was looking for evidence of things that had to have come back from the Mediterranean coast toward Arabia and wound up in the garbage of hostels along the way.

Asked if it wouldn't have been obvious that they would bring stuff in both directions, Bar-Oz points out that economic realities can be elusive. An Israeli paper manufacturer that used to recycle paper does so no more because it proved cheaper to exploit ships unloading imports in Israel to haul Israeli waste paper to the United States for recycling, he explains as an example.

It has been amply shown in other studies that fish – most probably dried – were being eaten in inland ancient Israel in Shivta in the middle of the Negev, also at Halutza, in monasteries in Jordan, and in Jerusalem, and much more. But the discovery of deceased Red Sea marine life in Incense Route caravanserai trash pits is new.

Also, it bears adding that any oysters and crabs at Othan Mor or any other mid-route desert armpit were probably a great luxury, Bar-Oz adds, recalling exotic treks in far-off lands. In the city, a soda may cost you a dollar. Atop a crag in the Himalayas, it’s going to cost a LOT more.

Nabataean ceramics found at Shaar Ramon and Othan Mor.Credit: Roi Galili

Why would anybody import shellfish to a pit stop for camels and traders in the desert? For the same reason that Israelis imported blueberries until somebody started growing them locally: blueberry envy. So what have we? Shellfish envy?

Let us add that the Nabataeans had a monopoly over camel trains across Arabia and to the southern Levant. Goods and exotica from the East would be brought to their trading hub, the Nabatean capital of Petra, from where caravans – now also laden with Nabatean pottery and glassware – would head west for Gaza. This was their gateway to the Mediterranean markets, including ancient Greece and Rome.

Some of the food served to the itinerant merchants would have been locally sourced; desert it may have been but the Negev also had a rich history of irrigation agriculture. What other foodstuffs did the merchants eat? The analysis of the garbage at the three hostels also found imported crab claws and fish, but also lots of sheep bones, rather less goat bones, remains of pig and gazelle, and eggshells from chickens, which could have been husbanded locally.

Also found were lots of olive and date seeds, and evidence of legumes and grains, as one would expect.

Findings from the dig at Shaar Ramon. The garbage can be seen on the right, near the entrance gate.: olive seeds, oyster from the Nile and rope.Credit: Roi Galili

It bears stressing that oyster was not some sort of ancient staple for caravans. Othan Mor (aka Moyat-‘Awad), which was one of the bigger roadside stations in the western Arava Valley for the caravans, had a olive press, and even a bathhouse for the weary merchants. No oyster shells were found there, only at the other two sites.

Even so: “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,” Bar-Oz and the sum up. The camels were clearly not going back to Arabia laden with nothing but their worries.

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