Oldest Soap Factory in the World Found, and It Was Vegan
Israeli archaeologists have discovered the oldest vegan soap factory in the world in Israel. Archaeologists at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) say these ancient soap makers used olive oil instead of animal fat. The oldest vegan soap factory in the world, 1,200 years old, was found in a Bedouin village in the ancient city of Rahat, in southern Israel.
Vegan Soap Was Clean While Animal Fat Soap Was Not
The surfactants in soap lift germs from the skin and water washes them away. This is why “Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds” is what the Centre for Disease Control ( CDC) has advised all Americans to do to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during the current pandemic. However, there is a big difference between vegan soaps and animal fat soaps.
In Naturalis Historia, published around 77 AD, the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder described soap as a “pomade made of tallow” derived from boiled beef fat and ash that the Gauls “applied to their hair to give it a reddish tint.” The long and dirty history of soap making began in ancient Mesopotamia around 2800 BC with soap made with cooked fatty acids from slaughtered cows, sheep and goats mixed with water, an alkaline substance, and wood ash.
A few of the volunteers that worked at the excavation site of the oldest soap factory in the world in Rahat, Israel (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)
The IAA-controlled excavation site in Rahat was discovered during the groundwork construction for a new neighborhood that included hundreds of volunteers including the local Bedouin community. The Israeli, Islamic-period family home in Rahat, where the vegan soap was made, ranks as one of the earliest soap production facilities in the world. Vegan soaps are not easy to make and this discovery has provided scientists with new evidence related to the challenging chemistry of making vegetable oil soap cakes.
The History of Soap Is Full of Misunderstandings
Dr Elena Kogen Zehavi, the IAA excavation director of the Rahat site, spoke with journalists at Haaretz and said that while soap production in the ancient world was largely based on animal fats the Ebers papyrus described an Egyptian vegan soap from about 1550 BC. In speaking about the Rahat site, Zehavi said it’s easy to “imagine them all vigorously scrubbing off the other ’s blood from their faces and tunics after their interminable battles.” And she pointed out that a misunderstanding exists about how soap was actually made in the 7th-century AD by early Arab chemists who “mixed vegetable and aromatic oils with the alkaline, sodium lye.”
It is well known that the ancient Romans were keen on bathing in public baths but the soaps they used were made with animal fats. The main difference between Islamic soaps and those made in Europe, Rome and Gaul, was the exclusion of pig fat. The ancient Muslims, on the other hand, used olive oil.
The Rahat vegan soap workshop provides the earliest known extant location for olive oil soap manufacture, which had been previously assumed to have occurred in the 9th century AD.
While Soap Was In Production Workers Had Time to Play Games
Making good quality soap that cleans but doesn’t burn the skin, and doesn’t smell of animal fats, requires careful preparation and specific vegetable oil concentrations. Zehavi stated that the soap made in the home factory in ancient Rahat was made with olives based on the many olive pits found at the site. Evidence also indicates that the soap makers of ancient Rahat may have taken advantage of saltwort (salsola soda,) a local plant known to be rich in potassium and potash.
An excavation volunteer holding up an ancient game board found at the Rahat site. Soap production meant workers had idle time for games while they waited for the next stage in the manufacturing process. (Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority)
Industrial level production of ancient vegan soap also meant lots of breaks or waiting time. IAA Northern Negev District archaeologist Svetlana Tallis said that along with soap manufacturing tools the archaeologists at the Bedouin home also unearthed a round limestone slab carved with a series of lines and holes that was an ancient game board. This find was similar to the strategy board game called “ The Windmill,” better known as Nine Men's Morris, which until now was only known to have existed in the Roman period. Another time-passing board game was also discovered at the site. This game was the Egyptian empire game Hounds and Jackals, which is known to have spread around the Mediterranean around 4,000 years ago.
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In a Times of Israel article, Fahiz Abu Saheeben, mayor of Rahat, said that he was pleased “the excavation has revealed the Islamic roots of Rahat,” ahead of the construction of a new neighborhood, and he hopes a new visitors ’ center can be built for tourists and the local Bedouin community. Hopefully, the oldest vegan soap will also be sold to the tourists.
Top image: Israel Antiquities Authority excavation of the earliest soap factory in Israel, and the oldest vegan soap factory in the world. Inset; ancient game board found at the Rahat site. Source: Emil Aladjem / Israel Antiquities Authority
By Ashley Cowie