LOS ANGELES — Excavation of an ancient seaport on Egypt’s Red Sea found spices, gems and other exotic cargo showing that sea trade linking the Roman Empire and India 2,000 years ago rivaled the legendary Silk Road at times, archaeologists say.
“We talk today about globalism as if it were the latest thing, but trade was going on in antiquity at a scale and scope that is truly impressive,” said Willeke Wendrich, of the University of California, Los Angeles, a co-director of the dig.
Wendrich and fellow dig director Steven Sidebotham, of the University of Delaware, report their findings in the July issue of the journal Sahara.
Historians have long known that Egypt and India traded during the Roman era, in part thanks to texts that detail the commercial exchange of luxury goods, including fabrics, spices and wine, by land and sea.
Now, archaeologists who have spent the last nine years excavating the town of Berenike, say they have recovered an array of artifacts that are the best physical evidence yet of the extent of sea trade between the Roman Empire and India.
Among their finds at the site near Egypt’s border with Sudan: more than 16 pounds of black peppercorns, the largest stash of the prized Indian spice ever recovered from a Roman archaeological site.
They also uncovered numerous beams hewn of teak, a wood indigenous to India, and Indian sailcloth. That suggests not just Roman ships, but cargo carriers built and rigged in the Asian subcontinent, visited the port, crossing the more than 2,500 miles of ocean dividing the two regions.
Berenike lies at what was the southeastern extreme of the Roman Empire and likely functioned as a transfer port for goods shipped through the Red Sea. Trade activity at the port peaked twice, in the first century and again around A.D. 500, before it ceased altogether, possibly after a plague struck the region.
Wendrich said ships would sail between Berenike and India during the summer, when monsoon winds were strongest. From Berenike, camel caravans probably ferried the goods 240 miles west to the Nile, where they were shipped downstream by boat to the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, she said. From there, they could have moved by ship throughout the rest of the Roman world.
Mediterranean goods, including wine from the Greek island of Kos and fine tableware, moved the opposite way.
The Silk Road was an overland trade corridor spanning Central Asia.
“The Silk Road gets a lot of attention as a trade route, but we’ve found a wealth of evidence indicating that sea trade between Egypt and India was also important for transporting exotic cargo, and it may have even served as a link with the Far East,” said Sidebotham.
While land routes were dependent on political situations, hazards to ancient mariners on the Red Sea were largely natural and the sea routes were generally considered cheaper, Wendrich said. “And the risks balance out quite neatly,” she added.
The dry climate at Berenike preserved many organic materials from India that have never been found in the more humid subcontinent. Digging in a first century dump, the team found both Indian cotton sailcloth and batik-dyed fabric, along with gems and beads from what is now Sri Lanka, the archaeologists report.
Indian pottery found in the 30-acre site suggests Indian traders lived in the town amid a hodgepodge of other cultures. Archaeologists found evidence that a dozen different scripts, including Tamil-Brahmi, Greek, Latin and Hebrew, were used in Berenike.
Wendrich said the finds give “a very different flavor” to our understanding of long-distance trade at the time.
“It was not completely induced from the West. The East played a very important role in initiation of the trade. That is something you don’t read in the textual sources at all; they are all from the Roman perspective,” she said.
Elizabeth Lyding Will, an emeritus professor of classics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said the finds help add “a whole new dimension to Roman archaeology.”
“It looks to me that India was some sort of engine driving Roman trade during the early empire,” said Will, who has spent 50 years studying Roman amphorae, including finds made in southern India. “It could have been the chief focus of their trade.”
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