Sunday, 26 September 2010

More Salt Facts

Following on from last week's introduction to salt, which resulted a number of appreciative comments (thank you) here I produce a few facts - some may be known others not so well known.

The Salt Routes
is a journey through time as it studies the very earliest days of trade, following the routes on foot, bicycle, or even in a motor if desired.

Sodium Chloride, NaCl, occurs as rock salt or halite and is used today for much more than simply cooking. At the beginning of the 21st century, worldwide salt production was in excess of 210 million metric tonnes and hardly an industry on the planet does not make some use of this simple compound.
But where does it come from? The salt that is being extracted is the result of a dried up sea of some 220 million years ago, even when it is pumped up as saturated brine it is down to rainwater seeping down to disolved the rock salt or, in some cases, where fresh water has been pumped into the band of salt to deliberately produce brine. The salty sea derives its salt from the land, however there must have been a beginning to this cycle and the question remains, where did the salt come from? The answer is probably that it came from the land and was disolved over aeons as the land was continually washed by the rains and rivers. However there are those who maintain that the world's oceans came to our planet courtesy of the dirty snowballs called comets and, if this is the case, perhaps the salt came with it.
In ancient Egypt the preservation qualites of salt were realised. Bodies buried in the dry sand of the Sahara, with its high salt content, were soon robbed of their moisture and thus preserved. An example of the effectiveness of this simple technique is on view in the British Museum. Affectionately known as Ginger, after the tufts of ginger hair still attached to his head, the 5,000 year-old body of a man was discovered in the sands of Egypt and was even better preserved than the mummification processes later adopted for their pharaohs. Indeed it was these early burials which later developed into the mummification with which the ancient Egyptians are so well known. Some reports state how the bodies of the dead were immersed in brine for ten weeks before the embalmer got to work, while when she heard of the death of Mark Antony, Cleopatra ordered his body pickled in brine.
Salt was also used in the preparation of food left inside the great pyramids. The journey to the afterlife was a lengthy one with many tasks and trials to be overcome on the way. Clearly even the mighty pharaohs needed sustenance on the journey, thus it was that a selection of foods were left within the tombs. Clearly the food would have gone bad equally as quickly as the body and so it was heavily salted and wrapped, much the same as the mummy it was meant to feed.
The value of salt in ancient times is seen in in every major civilization that grew up around the Mediterranean. First came the Phoenicians, a people from modern-day Lebanon where there was little arable land and therefore they were forced to trade. What Lebanon did have was trees, the wood was used to build ships and the Phoenician navigators travelled all around the Mediterranean, are known to have visited Britain, the coastline around Africa and at least as far as India.
By creating channels they allowed the sea to flood the marshes, then dammed those areas and allowed the warm Mediterranean sun to evaporate the water leaving behind tons of natural salt. A simple process and one which is almost labour free when compared with the working conditions in the salt works of Cheshire and Droitwich.
Not only did the salt itself bring great wealth, but their skills as mariners saw them net great quantities of Mediterranean tuna on a scale never before seen. Tuna are fish of the open ocean and the problem had always been getting the fish to port before they started to rot. Salt enabled the Phoenicians to preserve their catch and cash in on a new market. Over one thousand years they rose in power and influence, establishing numerous cities including the most famous of Carthage in modern Tunisia.
One of the most valuable items they traded were the spices and, in this era at least, the most precious spice was pepper. The two items are still linked on tables all around the world and yet the irony is that the devaluation of salt was directly linked to the influx of pepper.
From around 600BC the Phoenician influence was in decline, hastened by something very much in the news in the 21st century - climate change. A few years of very extreme weather for the region, storms destroyed almost half of the salt pans, the rest were ruined by the incessant rain making evaporation impossible. As a result their economy was dealt a blow from which, at least collectively, they never recovered. The individual cities fell, eventually even the might of Carthage was no more.

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