Colorful cotton and silk fabrics recently uncovered by Israeli archaeologists in the Arava desert offer proof of unknown ancient trade routes connecting the Far East to Europe passing through the region, the University of Haifa and the Israeli Antiquities Authority announced Wednesday.
“Our findings seem to provide the first evidence that there was also an ‘Israeli Silk Road’ used by merchants along the international trading routes,” said Prof. Guy Bar-Oz of the School of Archeology and Maritime Cultures at the University of Haifa. “This route branched off from the traditional Silk Route that passed to the north of Israel, crossing the Arava and connecting to the main historical trade routes that crossed the country, as well as to the main ports of Gaza and Ashkelon that served as major gateways to the Mediterranean world.”
The fabrics date back to the Early Islamic Period, some 1,300 years ago.
The artifacts were discovered in a project focused on examining accumulations of garbage at sites along the trading routes, with the goal of reaching a better understanding of the life of ancient merchants.
One of the sites that researchers have been investigating is Nahal Omer. There, in a joint excavation led by Bar-Oz and Nofar Shamir from the University of Haifa, Dr. Roi Galili from Ben-Gurion University, Dr. Orit Shamir from the Israel Antiquities Authority and Dr. Berit Hildebrandt of Göttingen University in Germany, the archaeologists uncovered not only the fabrics, but also dozens of other artifacts, such as items of clothing, hygienic products (including ear swabs and bandages), leather straps, belts, socks, shoe soles and combs.
“The findings include a large proportion of imported items, including fabrics bearing typical decorations of Indian origin and silk items from China,” Shamir, an expert in fabrics, highlighted. “This is the first time that these items dating back to this period have been found in Israel. The variety and richness of the findings show that luxury goods from the East were in high demand at the time.”
The fabrics unearthed were produced using a variety of techniques, including the Iranian twist and the ikat technique, in which the warp is tied and dyed before weaving according to a pre-prepared model. In some artifacts, white cotton and colored wool were woven together in a complex process. Such items have been very rarely retrieved in the Middle East.
“The patterns of produce movement and the range over which commerce was conducted highlight the processes of globalization that influenced the Middle East toward the end of the first millennium,” Bar-Oz and Galili said. “Until now, academic discussion of the format of ancient trade was based mainly on historical sources. Archeological remains that allow us to touch the material itself were rare.”
According to the researchers, the Spice Route used during the Hellenistic and Roman periods was no longer active in the Early Islamic Period. They therefore believe that the new findings proved that the Negev at that time became an area where the Incense Road merged with the Silk Road while new types of goods started to be imported from East and South Asia into Europe.
“The findings from the excavation reflect unique contacts on a global level with sources of fabric manufacturing in the Far East,” Bar-Oz. “They provide us with new ways to track political, technological and social interactions that have been constantly reshaped by trade networks.”
“We can now explore in more detail the long-distance movement of goods, geographic diffusion of people and ideas and connections along the roads and production centers,” he concluded. “All these were, until now, historically and archaeologically invisible or incompletely recorded. Our new findings are an important step in that direction.”