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date: 02 December 2021

Salt Production, Use, and Tradelocked

Salt Production, Use, and Tradelocked

  • Alexander AntonitesAlexander AntonitesUniversity of Pretoria


Salt was an important commodity throughout the human past. Although salt (sodium chloride) is essential to human health, the desire for salt in humans cannot be explained by physiological need alone. Instead, both biology and culture drive the taste for salt. The result is that salt was frequently highly valued, with its production and trade important in economic, social, and political systems of the past. Despite this importance, salt is an elusive item to study since it does not preserve well and is mostly consumed. Production sites are often the only places with any discernible remains related to salt use. However, historical and ethnographic material are rich sources of analogies of how salt was produced and traded in preindustrial societies. There are frequently large-scale similarities in traditional salt-making practices despite tremendous technological, organizational, and environmental contexts. These show that salt production technology is mostly robust and fairly simple and that salt can be made with very little investment in infrastructure. As a result, many communities with access to salt sources could be self-sufficient. In the absence of readily available salt, trade networks developed around its distribution over medium and long distances. Consequently, control over this spatially restricted resource was often an important factor in regional politics, and in several cases played an important role in the development of hierarchical systems of power. It is, however, important to discern between specialization production for trade by a small group of producers and production by multiple small-scale producers for their own use, since the archaeological remains of these two different production strategies may look very similar. As a result, archaeologists need to employ multiple lines of evidence in discerning the organization of production.


  • Archaeology

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