and the evolution of monopoly”
David D.Bloch - [M.R.Bloch Salt
Abstract : Common Salt was generally in very short supply during
critical periods from ancient times until the Industrial revolution.
Salt might be compared to oil in today’s economies
that it also was needed to sustain animal and human life and only
incidentally was it to become the main supporting commodity of a
communities’ economy. It was so basic to any domesticated community
that it had to be regulated. Its supply and its sources had to be
defended and guaranteed.
Like water, it was an essence of survival though far less ubiquitous.
Today's global warming technology has shown that climatic changes at the
poles’ ice caps specifically the Antarctic can have a direct influence
upon the rate of melting [or freezing] of the ice and on eustatic sea
levels. One such rise seems to have occurred during the early Roman
period and more than 200 known archaeological sites in the Mediterranean
are still covered by 1 to 3 meters of sea. They include the solar
evaporation facilities of ancient salt makers that had enabled the
liberal Greek and early Roman societies to live free of coercion and
monopoly that are the envy of many of us today.
”Common salt” [NaCl] is necessary for
human life. It is no less needed for life than the air we breathe and the
water we drink. If the water concentration in the body is to remain
constant, the regulation of the body salt intake and its excretion is a
direct function of this constant. [Denton-]
Salt deficiency is as equally lethal as a water deficiency.
The ‘hunter gatherer’ had a plentiful and
immediate supply of salt in the blood of the freshly killed meat protein
he brought to his kin. As society developed into populous agricultural
communities and livestock was domesticated and herded, perishable meat and
fish had to be preserved with an efficiency that allowed long periods of
storage, transport and distribution. The development of an ancient
technology that could eliminate bacteria or at the very least seal all the
remaining liquid tissues from atmospheric contact, led to many methods of
preservation. By far the most effective and most widely used was draining
the carcass and dehydrating it of all potentially decomposing tissue
liquids by an osmotic process, involving sprinkling salt or soaking the
meat in brine.
Fula mixture of two thirds salt and spices admixed into most Chinese
food preparations provides preservative .
This preserving salt, absorbed into the
meat coincidentally replaced the drained blood tissue salts as consumed by
the “hunter gatherer” in previous ages, and so salt continued to fulfill
the original physiological component inherent in freshly killed meat. This
technology became the main form of hygienic sacrifice on the altars of
most of the ancient world’s temples providing a community with its main
protein diet. The quantities of salt needed for this single process were
considerable and perhaps constituted the first elements of monopolizing
salt and the few known sources
Figure 2 The temple in Jerusalem - model showing the position of the
altar, and production lines with posts for hanging carcasses and the
Figure 3 Egyptian salting and packing poultry into amphorae as ameans of
By the beginning of the Roman period salt
had become a very basic everyday commodity used in many other developing
technologies, such as glassmaking, textiles, armory, tanning, and medicine
some of them bye-products to the critical meat and fish [Garum]
preservation industry. It has been suggested that salt consumption per
person for all purposes in the ancient world may not have been very much
less than it is today.
Figure 3 éHELLER MONEY
HALLE - Minting money is possible when perceived
value [salt] was in supply
The principle technology that enabled the
increasing production of salt for these numerous developments was that of
solar evaporation on vast coastal flats and marshes suitable for sea brine
concentration in open dike pans. Solar heat in the Mediterranean and peat
or wood burning on coasts further north was used for the energy to
crystallize the salt in the final stage of the process.
In the past three millennia small
fluctuations and more recent eustatic oscillations of sea levels have
catastrophically [ for coastal salt making] caused flooding and breaks in
the necessarily long brine concentration cycles of these facilities
which were dependent on a precise tide level to fill them.
Figure 4 Moroccan coastal salt evaporation pans
From tracings of old shorelines, from
carbon-14 dating and from sparse historical records a rough chart of these
fluctuations can be made and then linked to population and demographic
movements. [Bloch ; Fairbridge-].
This cycle of minor changes may be
associated with the same changing ice conditions that depended on albedo
variations caused by dust and volcanic ash on the white surface in the
Antarctic. A less than white surface that absorbed rather than reflected
heat in turn caused glaciers to melt quickly at their base and surge down
into the sea. [Wilson ; Bloch-]
Recent investigations claim that a fast fractionating process resulted in
the melting and breakup of the ice shelf this year.
SOLAR EVAPORATION or MINING
After the mighty 100-meter ocean rise
Neolithic man moved everywhere back and forth between coastal and inland
habitats, accommodating his life to this sea oscillation. The early period
of these movements is not well documented until we come to the time of the
Judean Kings 1000 BC [sea level -G] then the ocean was certainly above
present day sea levels. Between the 7th [sea level - F] and 6th
[sea level graph E] centuries BC the ocean receded. One fact seems
reasonably certain: at the height of the ancient Greek and Phoenician
civilizations, around 500 BC, the ocean level was from one to two meters
lower than it is today. From then on for 1000 years, from 600 BC to 400
AD, a steep rise caused many of the Mediterranean sea ports to be
inundated, including the Portus of Ostia and the neighboring Roman
saltpans which had to be moved inland [Meiggs R.-
] . The Portus was successively
rebuilt by the Emperor Claudius, near the present Fumicino airport, and
finally by Trajan still further up the Tiber as a six-sided basin, two
meters above present day sea levels. By 400 A.D., they too were flooded.
The areas at Ravenna and Aquilea [Gotz-]
and Classis, previously deep inland, turned into ports and were almost the
only ones near salt-works to survive in Italy. Today, their remains can be
seen, high and dry, about 10 km inland from the coast [Bloch-].
Figure 5 The Roman quay at Aquilea
This temporary loss of salt producing
Italian sources caused a salt famine in the Western Roman Empire.
Early in this development the African and Asian salt mines, as well as
desert lakes, had become salt havens for the European civilization. This
explains the otherwise senseless determination of the Roman emperors
Vespasian and Titus to conquer desert strongholds like Masada on the Dead
By the 6th century AD the Levant ports and other towns in Palestine had
become important trade centers and grew to be great cities [Bury-].
Consequently the inland salt lakes and
mines of Asia Minor, the Tatta salt lake in central Turkey, the Dead Sea
hinterland areas, and North African mines became prosperous. They shipped
salt and “salted” proteins to the Empire in forced though benevolent
exchange for “security”, and military aid, or in return for gold.
However this soon stopped when Rome depleted of gold and inevitably
weakened locally by authoritarian regimes had nothing left to offer except
Figure 6 Jebel Usdum - Solid salt of the mountain of Sdom at the Dead
The effects of a further rise [sea
level -D] in sea levels by the
beginning of the 5th century AD must have been catastrophic in Western
Europe. Between 450 AD and 500 AD the population density fell to a
fraction of what it had been, despite an influx of Germanic tribes from
the north [Bury-].
During the Dark Ages the salt traffic almost disappeared and the coasts of
Britain and France became deserted. The western parts of the continent
were an under-developed area and people began to migrate to the more arid
zones where natural salt outcrops not dissolved by the wet climate were
known to exist.
By the 10th century AD [sea
level -B] the ocean had again
receded and people along the European coasts in the most part freely
reactivated their salt making. According to the Domsday Book in 1086 AD
hundreds of saltpans were operating again in the English estuaries.
was founded on a newly emerged island, because of the drop in sea level [Goswin-],
to become the main focus of the English fish salting industry. It bridged
an interval of 400 years since Garonium, the Roman town by now in ruins
and which had ceased production and export of “garum” fish sauce. Along
the west coast of France, in Normandy, at the mouth of the Rhone, in
Sicily and the Crimea, salt production was again in full swing. The
revival of European coastal salt making brought invaders. In about 700 AD
Europe’s population vacuum began to fill violently. Norsemen took over the
British and French salt centers; from the east the Arabs invaded first
North Africa and then Spain, finally clashing with the Norman conquerors
in Provence. Ravenna, Classis and Aquilea appeared to have “silted up”
and Venice, like Yarmouth, emerged from the flood and began to thrive.
Concurrently for example, trading towns in
the Judean hills such as Jerusalem, Nablus, Hebron, Arad, Mamshit and
Abdat, decayed. They had been rich and well populated for some 800 years
while the caravans brought salt from the Dead Sea to the agricultural and
fishing people in the coastal plains. But now they lost their salt trade
to the new maritime conquerors. They became depopulated again repeating
the earlier history of 600 BC under similar circumstances. In Egypt,
and the other trade centers in North Africa probably suffered in the same
way. Another group of inland sources like Volterra and Cosenza in Italy
which had attracted the Germanic tribes during the general migration
period, lost their importance again by about 700 A.D. when the coastal
Of these newly established maritime flats
the one with the greatest potential was Nourmoutien, then occupied by the
Vikings (834 AD). It became part of the famous “Bay” salt and wine
emporium at Bourgneuf, which was to supply Scandinavia, England and the
Baltic by the sea routes during the Middle Ages [Agate-].
A similar revitalization took place in the Rhone and Dnieper deltas
where the Vikings restored the salt-works in the Carmargue fishing and
salting towns as well as those on the Crimean Peninsula. This sea level
remained relatively low for the following three centuries, during which
time millions of tons of peat provided fuel for salt makers. Great
cavities were left behind to become known as the Dutch “meers”, the French
“clairs” and the English “broads” - lake-like reminders of their former
A new rise
A] caused flooding
in the Dutch, French and English tidal peat areas and closed them down.
The reduction of coastal activity was
fortunately now compensated by a renaissance of inland salt mining
technology and brining methods in England, Burgundy, Germany, Poland and
However not without considerable social consequence and loss of freedom in
the sense that these operations were dependent on fuel, either wood or
An important and unforeseen effect of this shift was the need to create,
develop and maintain forestry for fuelling the new furnaces. The
monopolies governing the supply and transport of these essential
components in the production of salt from these few sources themselves
became the exclusive responsibility of eager authoritarian regimes. They
created tax controls, check points, borders and artificial 'limites' later
to become the national borders of the sovereign states and countries we
Most transport was by river or by pumping
brine through long wooden pipelines, both of which could be effectively
controlled strategically by relatively small armed forces. Caravans of
1000 camels protected by carnets de passages tax payments were common.
A radical change, both technologically and
politically, occurred in the late 16th century when the old Chinese
brining method was revived in Cheshire and north Germany. It consisted of
deep hole drilling, then bringing up the brine and boiling it by means of
burning coal [Nef-].
It is the technique of using these modern fuels to extract salt from sea
water and dissolved rock salt which finally made salt available with no
limit to quantity. It also became an inexpensive, widely distributed
almost forgotten innocuous commodity.
MONOPOLY or TAXATION
It may be arguable that anything and
everything can be taxed by an authority. However in a liberal or “free”
society this relies on the democratic agreement of a community and by
definition would allow only a small [if any] central authority. It seems
the Athens of the 5th century BC was such a society and many of
the populations along the Mediterranean coast where the then low sea
levels allowed coastal “salt winning” were all basically independent.
“Free and Autonomous” meant avoiding any direct taxation of citizens. Even
the competing temples of the gods necessary for the daily ‘sacrifice’ of
domesticated animals, were not yet a centralized expense. It is true there
were indirect taxes on the income from slaves [Greek hal-ootinei:
exchanged for salt] or the use of community owned salt pans, harbors
and fisheries and even the tithe system of the temples. The integral
requirement of salt for these services was taken for granted and easily
supplied. It may even have been paid by the inhabitants in the form of
salt. Initially this was for a legitimate community service. However in
400 BC as some coastal salt supplies began to dwindle [sea level E – D],
the temple authorities were forced to guarantee themselves other sources.
Caesar and then Augustus turned to the mines and lakes of Asia Minor.
Modeled on public life and customs of the Greeks, 94 known “city states”
were established [ ] in the colonies
and were awarded status as ‘free and
autonomous’. The young men’s and the Elder’s associations began to thrive
and acquired a corporate character. Many ‘city states’ began minting
their own coins. Perhaps Alexander the Great was summoned to search for
the great Tatta salt lake in Anatolia, the great salt desert of Persia and
even as far as the salt mountains of the Indus valley. Many of these
‘city states’ were directly on the trading routes between the Tatta salt
Lake and the increasingly salt hungry destinations at home.
Any resistance to comply with increased
taxes because salt supplies became less reliable in turn meant that any
temple authority had to be in a position to force implementation. The
associated tanning bye products were needed to produce the now necessary
leather armory and ordinance and the chain of authority became directly
and indirectly more powerful..
As the sea rose however it was not force
or the expense of the military might of the conquering armies that drained
the western civilizations of their last vestiges of what had been our
model of democracy, freedom and equal rights, The early glorious years of
Imperial Rome had not been destroyed by the greed and corruption of a few
ruling misfits, but by a cruel circumstance that created the conditions of
monopoly. It forced anyone and everyone to accept its terms. It was the
monopolizing of this innocuous commodity that bent mens’
The historical scars of the salt
monopolies are still in evidence and the now quaint legislation still on
the statutes was operative in most countries at the beginning of the 20th
century vividly demonstrated by Gandhi in India. The monopolies ran
concurrently with periods of salt famine. Episodes such as the
controversial and violent latter half of the Roman period and the move to
the Levant, or the despicable inequality of the Gabelle regime were
necessarily accompanied hand-in-hand with fiercely authoritarian regimes
to protect and oversee them. Resulting social upheaval forced the focus
of communities away from the slowly flooding coastal salt sources that had
been synonymous with more liberal civilizations and undisturbed coastal
salt making. They were drawn toward the few known highly protected inland
salt quarries, brine springs and salt lakes catered by military supply
lines and ‘via salarium’. The salt famines provided periodical
significance to those places that have
regularly suffered the cycle of prosperity and decay.
Peaceful maritime Trade and liberal
regimes grew with the ability of those blessed with salt sources, to
supply themselves and barter salted goods. War, on the other hand, cursed
those same communities when the lines of supply became unreliable and
defense and protection became synonymous with monopoly and coercion. It
is perhaps no coincidence that the word for ‘war’ in ancient Hebrew [mel’chama]
means literally “a fight for [salt and bread] “ Similarly we may also
find the words for salt in the etymology of "peace" : salaam, shalom,
salute, salvete! And even a rejoicing, [Greek; salt=hal] 'hallelujah!
The salt monopolies
and their enforcement were the most practical of instruments for wielding
power until the end of the Industrial Revolution when the invention of
modern burning fuels allowed the efficient mass production of salt. The
remnants of these authoritarian regimes are still with us, and anti-trust
law is not yet fully enforced. Heads of Communities still mistakenly
consider many basic public services to be their exclusive domain and
Of the modern
corridors of power only democracy has visibly embraced anti-trust
legislation. To this writer [with an admitted mono-mania for salt], the
recent failures of communism and fascism were primarily due to the non
existence of anti-trust law.
- e-mail: David Bloch
The Hunger for Salt. An Anthropological, Physiological and Medical
Analysis - Springer-Verlag 1982
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