Table Salt, the World's First Precious Commodity

Salt use to be more valuable than gold in ancient times.

Introduction


In ancient times salt was at one time considered to be more valuable than gold. Once it was discovered that it could be used as a preservative for food, meat especially, and as a flavorant, it changed the course of civilizations in the ancient world. Civilizations fought over it, trades routes called salt roads were laid down for it, and some men became powerful leaders that they made salt coins in their image. This very simple, natural, but valuable chemical discovered in dry lake beds and mines became the world’s most valuable commodity in ancient times.


Salt slabs ready for transport

Slabs of salt ready for transport. This the way salt was transported across the Sahara Desert for thousands of years.
Slabs of salt ready for transport. This the way salt was transported across the Sahara Desert for thousands of years.

What is Salt?

Chemically, table salt is a crystalline substance made up of sodium ions (Na+) and chloride ions (Cl-). It is primarily found in the oceans and lakes in the world. It is also found in rivers and as rock salt or halite crystals in mines scattered around the globe. Contrary to popular belief that sea salt is more healthy than table salt, sea salt is primarily sodium chloride (table salt) with other salts and minerals. It is the sodium in salt; which is present in sea salt too, that is responsible for hypertension. Despite its bad rap, salt is important to all animal life. It is responsible for the proper functioning of nerves and muscles and serves as an important regulator in the kidneys to maintain the volume of water in our blood.



A salt miner working in the Taodenni salt mine.
A salt miner working in the Taodenni salt mine.

Camel caravan transporting salt

The most common way salt slabs were transported today during ancient time in the Sahara Desert
The most common way salt slabs were transported today during ancient time in the Sahara Desert

The Importance of Salt during Ancient Times

  • Salt was a necessity for agricultural societies.
  • The health of the population depended on it. Some wars were won or lost depending on the availability of salt for the soldiers.
  • Salt made it possible to store food longer which increased the range of explorers and armies during battles.
  • Salt help countries to tolerate a disastrous harvest.


Salt as a Commodity

The discovery of salt as a food preservative is considered to be one of the most significant event to occur in the history of mankind. This event would change the way man treat and store animal tissue for food. Before this event human’s sustenance was mostly meat sprinkle with grain. Meat was the main source of salt in our diet at that time. But when humans began depending on grain and other food grown on their farms for their main source of food it because harder for them to maintain a proper amount of salt in their diet. The meat portion of his diet could not be store to eat later like grain. It had to be cooked and consumed immediately after the kill. Humans were faced with the problem of not having enough salt in their diet and had to find another source of salt besides meat.


There is no record of how the preservative property of salt was discovered but the earliest known city in Europe, Solnitsata, was probably the first major production of salt six millennia ago. Archaeologists discovered a large collection of gold objects at the site indicating that these objects were traded for the salt. It was a valuable commodity more than six thousand years ago. What made salt so valuable during antiquity. It was not just its ability to preserve food. As the demand for salt went up it became harder to find it since salt deposits were mostly underground. During that time salt was found mostly in dry lake beds and mines. It was a laborious process to dig and extract it from these lake beds. It gave explorers and armies the ability to travel further from home to explore and conquer more land for expansion which made leaders and kings more powerful. Also after a battle, salt was often spread over the land of defeated villages and small cities to make it impossible for the ones left behind to grow crops.


The Salt Miner's Job

Salt was one of the reasons the Roman Empire covered such a large area of Europe. During the Roman Empire, soldiers were paid with salt for their service in the army. The expression “worth their salt” originated from this payment system when soldiers were told they did excellent work. Sometimes they were paid an allowance or salary to buy salt. The origin of the word salary as written in the dictionary, is from the latin word salarium, originally denoting a Roman soldier’s allowance to buy salt, from sal “salt’. With the increasing demand for salt, Romans begin building “salt roads” to many cities in the region to improve transport of salt to these places. In some cases new cities sprung up near the roads to become part of the salt trade. Romans were not the only one with salt roads. France, China, Ethiopia and countries in the Middle East also had salt roads. A few salt roads even went through the Himalayas between Nepal and Tibet. Rice from Nepal was often transported by animals to Tibet to trade for salt extracted from the dry lakes on the Tibetan Plateau. Salt roads were not necessarily on solid ground. In the case of most European countries, the coastline and rivers were used to transport salt mostly from the southern countries to the northern countries of Europe because production of salt was much higher in south than the north. Salt was often found on the coastline of some countries.


Since salt was valued highly in the cities along the salt roads, these cities started levying taxes and duties on the salt passing through their area. Salt was valued highly for another obvious reason, everyone needed it to survive. This is the reason why salt became the first commodity to be taxed as far back as 2200 BC in China by emperor Hsia Yu. Consequently, this tax caused friction between poor and rich people in these regions. For instance, there was one unpopular tax enacted in France during the reign of King Philip IV in 1286 called the “gabelle” which lasted for about 500 years. Napoleon even got involved in this salt tax in 1806 when he reinstated it to fund his army. He lost the war with Moscow because his soldiers did not have enough salt during the battle. Some of his men literally died from salt deprivation. This tax made the value of salt so high it sparked wars between cities, attracted invaders and caused population shifts.


Old salt road in Germany used to transport salt and other supplies in ancient times.
Old salt road in Germany used to transport salt and other supplies in ancient times.

Salt tax played a role in the independence of India on January 26,1930, after the beginning of the 200-mile Salt March led by the popular nonviolent leader Mahatma Gandhi in March 1930. In 1648, a riot broke out in Moscow because of the high tax imposed on salt by the government. This event drove up the price of salt and ultimately led to violent riots in Moscow called the “Salt Riot”. Boris Morozov, an advisor to the Tsar Alexei, was forced into exile after the riots were brought under control. The Egyptians used salt during the mummification process. A salt tax was imposed on the mummies when they were shipped down the Nile River to their destinations. The mummies were taxed as “salted meat”.

Even during the American civil war salt played a crucial role during the war, obviously for preservation of the soldiers food rations. At the beginning of the war Union soldiers targeted all inland salt production facilities in the South since the ocean was the only reliable source of salt for the Confederacy army. There is one site in Virginia, aptly named Saltville, where Union and Rebel soldiers fought for more than 36 hours over this valuable site. The Rebels defeated the Union army in the “Battle of Saltville, October 1-3, 1864” to keep this vital salt mine in their possession.

Conclusion

There are many historical events of how salt affected the course of many events in the ancient world as a precious commodity and it is still doing that today even though it is not as valuable from a monetary perspective as it once was in ancient history. It is still a valuable commodity for the survival of all animal and human life on the planet. Today It is so inexpensive and plentiful that it is no longer a trade commodity. We literally spread it over the roads during the cold months to make them safer during winter driving. Basically, we are almost doing the same thing the early civilizations did after they defeated cities. They spread salt over the land to make it impossible to grow crops there again. It was much more expensive then.


© 2014 Melvin Porter

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8 comments

melpor profile image

melpor 16 months ago from New Jersey, USA Author

Thanks BlameDrawin for reading my hub and leaving a comment. Also, welcome to Subpages.


Blamedarwin 16 months ago

Very instructive. I remembered the words of Jesus to his disciples , "Ye are the salt of the earth". I can understand a little more now. Thanks


melpor profile image

melpor 2 years ago from New Jersey, USA Author

Thanks Beth. Thanks for your comment and reading my hub.


Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

Beth Eaglescliffe 2 years ago from UK

Makes one think more about an everyday item that is so often taken for granted. An interesting read.

Voted up.


melpor profile image

melpor 2 years ago from New Jersey, USA Author

Kallen, thanks or your comment and for reading my hub.


k allen bridge 2 years ago

Interesting work. Check out Michael Moss's "Salt, Sugar, Fat" for more recent examples of salt's influence and prominence.


melpor profile image

melpor 2 years ago from New Jersey, USA Author

Lions44, thanks for your comment and for reading my hub.


lions44 profile image

lions44 2 years ago from Auburn, WA

I learned something new: I found out where the expression "worth their salt" came from. Very interesting article. Voted up.

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