In these times when good hand hygiene can save lives and combat Covid-19, it’s interesting to look back on history when our ancestors use soap only for bathing as it was too expensive for most people. For instance, a recent archeological work carried out at the desert town of Rahat in Israel yielded evidence of a 1,200-year-old olive oil soap manufacturing.
Oldest soap factory in Israel
A team of archeologists discovered the facility inside the house of an affluent family, who likely accumulated their wealth by producing and selling olive oil soap. The archeologists shared they were conducting excavations in the site ahead of a new construction project.
Dr. Elena Kogen Zehavi, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) excavation director, told the Jerusalem Post that their discovery could pave the way for the recreation of the traditional production process of the soap industry. “This is the first time that a soap workshop as old as ancient as this has been discovered,” she said. Zehavi added that while they were familiar with significant soap-making centers in the past, it was from a much later period – the Ottoman – and these were discovered in Jerusalem, Gaza, Jaffa, and Nablus.
According to Ruth Schuster, who holds a BSc in biology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the earliest known evidence of soap-making is nearly 5,000 years ago. It was described in an ancient Babylonian inscription on a clay cylinder from 2800 BCE that the manufacture of soap used water, wood ash, and fats. Soap was used in cleaning cotton and wool used in textile manufacture and they also used it medicinally. This is what makes Dr. Zehavi and the team’s discovery unique because the soap factory used olive oil instead of lard of the swine. Schuster was not a part of the Rahat excavation team.
Researchers were also unsure whether the Mesopotamians who produced the soap did use the substance to clean their bodies but Dr. Zehavi said the soap made using water, wood ash, and fats would have been very different from the solid bar soap produced in the modern times.
The process of making soap
As for the recent discovery, the excavation team comprised of hundreds of university students, young people, and students in pre-military preparatory programs, collected the residues to better understand the production process. They said that to create the cleaning concoction, the ancient factory workers mixed olive oil with ashes from the saltwort plants, which are a natural source of potash salts and have a high concentration of potassium. They cooked the concoction for about a week. Then, the workers poured the mixture into a shallow basin so that it will harden for the next ten days before they sliced it into soap bars. After two months of drying, the bars were sold like soap.
The Rahat excavation site likewise revealed a pair of ancient board games. The first one was around limestone disc believed to have been used for a strategy came called the “Windmill.” IAA Northern Negev District’s archeologist Svetlana Tallis said in a statement that such a strategy game is known to have existed as early as the second and third centuries and is even played up to this day. They also unearthed the board of another game called “Fifty-eight Holes” or “Hounds and Jackals.” This game was known to be played already in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt at least 4,000 years ago and it involved two players throwing sticks and dice to advance on the board and reach a certain point.
Tallis and team said that perhaps the board games were used during windy and long winter nights or the unbearably hot summer days. Artifacts associate with the second board game found has been previously discovered in Israel as well, particularly in the sites of Tel Beth Shan and Megiddo.
Supervised by Dr. Zehavi and assisted by Avinoam Lehavi and Dr. Yael Abadi-Rice, the excavation at Rahat started as the site was prepared for a new neighborhood in the city. Their project ended up as an opportunity to get the locals to participate.
Rahat Mayor Fahiz Abu Saheeben said that it turns out that the excavation revealed the Islamic roots of their city. The Mayor said that they are proud of the project and are happy that it took place in cooperation with the local community. They enjoy the good relations with IAA and the Authority for Development and Settlement of the Bedouin in the Negev. Mayor Saheeben added that they hope to construct a visitors’ center that the local community and tourists will enjoy.
Meanwhile, far away in either Central or Western Europe, history also shows that the Celts made some kind of soap but not a solid one. The same goes for the Roman and the Vikings said Dr. Zehavi.
Soaphistory.net also revealed that in Egypt, 1550 BC, ancient Egyptians mixed vegetable oils and animal oils with alkaline salts to produce soap-like substance. Goat’s tallow and wood ashes were used to produce soap. On the other hand, early Romans made soaps from urine. The ammonium carbonate (salt compound) in the urine reacted with fat in wool and oils form soap.
Israel’s soap market
The value of soap exports from Israel totaled $99 million in 2019, according to Trend Economy. Sales of commodity group 3401, which comprises soap and organic surface-active products and preparations for use as soap, decreased by 20% in value terms compared to 2018. Israel’s top export destinations of soap are the United Kingdom with a share of 33% (US$33 million), Netherlands (20%, $20 million), USA (8.87%, $8.81 million), France (7.28%, $7.23 million), and Germany (6.79%, $6.75 million). Israel also imports soap and organic surface-active products and preparations for use as soap. The total value of imports of soap amounted to $28 million in 2019.
Meanwhile, Dun & Bradstreet data shows that top soap and detergent manufacturing companies in Israel. These include Sano Bruno's Enterprises Ltd. with $456.26M sales revenue, Klir Chemicals ($35.39M), Sabon Shel Paam Industries Ltd ($32.32M), Zohar Dalia Cooperative Agricultural Association Ltd ($21.01M), and Galil Chemicals Ltd ($19.39M).
Soap making history goes back many thousand years. Today, there are many different soaps made for different purposes. It is available for industrial, commercial, and personal use. Some are commercially-produced, others handmade, and homemade.