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1200 year old soapery discovered

Archaeologists working in Israel have discovered the remains of an olive oil soap making workshop, farm houses and medieval gameboards. 

The Israel Antiquities Authority announced the discovery after a six-month excavation at the town of Rahat in southern Israel. The soap making workshop, known as a soapery, dates back about 1200 years and is the oldest of its kind found in the country.

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The production of olive oil soap is mentioned in writings since the 10th century CE and it has been a significant industry in the region from the Middle Ages and until the early 20th century. During the soap-making process, olive oil was used as the base material, mixed with ashes produced by burning salsola soda (saltwort) plants, which contain potash and water. The mixture was cooked for about seven days, after which the liquid material was transferred to a shallow pool, where the soap hardened for about ten days until it could be cut into bars. These were piled for additional drying, and the final product was ready after an additional period of two months. The site at Rahat displays facilities associated with this industry. The Israel Antiquities Authority’s researchers obtained samples from the finds, with the purpose of identifying the materials used in the production process.

“This is the first time that a soap workshop as ancient as this has been discovered, allowing us to recreate the traditional production process of the soap industry,” explains Dr. Elena Kogen Zehavi, the IAA excavation director. “For this reason, it is quite unique. We are familiar with important soap-making centers from a much later period – the Ottoman period. These were discovered in Jerusalem, Nablus, Jaffa, and Gaza.”

The “Windmill” gameboard discovered at the site. Photo courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority

The archaeologists also excavated other medieval buildings at this site, and discovered some interesting objects. “One of the underground spaces of the wealthy building contained another exciting finding,” explains Svetlana Tallis, an IAA archaeologist, “shedding light on the daily life of the inhabitants – a round limestone gameboard used for a strategy game called the “Windmill.” This game is known to have existed as early as the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE (the Roman period), and it is still being played to this very day.”

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Another gameboard found at the site was called Hounds and Jackals, or 58 Holes. Photo courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority

Nearby, a second gameboard known as “Hounds and Jackals”, or “Fifty-eight Holes” was also found. This game was first played in Egypt and it spread to other parts of the Mediterranean basin and to Mesopotamia around 2000 BCE. In Israel, it has been discovered in ancient Megiddo and Tel Beth Shan. It was played by two players throwing dice or sticks that determined the number of places to move with each throw. The goal of the game seems to have been a specific point on the board.

Hundreds of people took part in the archaeological dig, including university students and the local Bedouin residents of Rahat. Fahiz Abu Saheeben, the mayor of Rahat, says “The excavation has revealed the Islamic roots of Rahat. We are proud of the excavation and happy that it took place in cooperation with the local community. We enjoy good relations with the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Authority for Development and Settlement of the Bedouin in the Negev and we hope to construct a visitors’ center that tourists and the local community will be able to enjoy.”

Top Image: The medieval soapery discovered in an Israeli excavation. Photo courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority

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