The Archaeology Fund

The Economics of Trade




South Arabia

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 The early production of incense for distant markets must remain necessarily vague. We know virtually nothing about production methods, personnel, harvesting, or shipping. In Hatshepsut=s voyage to Punt, ca. 1500 B.C. the temple reliefs show incense heaped up in open piles at Punt ready for collection by the Egyptians. Upon arrival in Egypt at such Red Sea ports as Sawwu , the incense products were skiffed ashore [ES-060] and after a journey across the Eastern Desert, were piled in rows before officials at Thebes. This recalls the 1500 years later description in the Periplus where at Khor Rohri the incense was allowed to remain in open air piles. Surely, however, the Egyptian incense would have been baled or crated for sea and land passage before arrival. h

 But, how was the incense itself collected? Again, we don=t learn of such information until the Classic period when Pliny goes on to refer to 3000 select families in the Sakalan Dhofar region [IC-056, IC-075] which were permitted to cut the trees and collect and harvest incense (Pliny, Book 12/sec. xxx). This suggests ownership of Agroves@ perhaps along a transect pattern. In the ethnographic present, ownership in Oman and Somalia is also entrusted to select chosen tribal families. Prior to 1939 in Dhofar, over 3000 people were involved annually in harvesting, some coming from as far away as Somalia. Each >authorized@ area is strictly defined and contains from 200 to 600 trees. The harvesting is timed with the advent of the hot season and begins in Somalia by the end of March and in Dhofar by the beginning of April. Based on age, size, and location, 10-30 scorings are made on each tree [IT-014]. Within each allotted plot, a rotation of trees is practiced to maximize production. Upon scoring, a white sap (luban) is extruded. The sap then crystalizes and falls to the ground where after two-three weeks it is harvested. It is placed in date palm baskets. Already in the Classic seaport of Qana, incense fragments were found with basket impressions [IC-062]. Healthy trees are tapped for three years running then placed in fallow for a number of years. Each tree is capable of producing from three to more than 10 kg. annually. (Myrrh trees produce three-four kg. per tree annually).

 How much incense was harvested annually? Even today, production figures are very difficult to obtain and interpret. Freya Stark suggested that 2000 tons were shipped from Shihr in 1937 alone. For all of Dhofar, Janzen quotes a figure of 7000-8000 tons for the same years but suggests a true figure closer to 5000 tons. From Somalia, a British report for 1823 suggested 2500 tons were exported. In 1929, the Italians quoted a figure from their colony of 1000 tons. From the 1980's official Somali figures quote an export of 2000 tons with a similar amount smuggled by families. Based on Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Classic period accounts, all we can suggest is that a much greater volume must have been harvested in the past. In terms of climate, we also have very little information on the past location of incense trees as opposed to the present [IT-019, IC-028].

 Today, the incense is handled by a large range of middle men [Yemen botany 2.tif] and this must have been the case also in the past [IC-040]. Saleh has suggested that in New Kingdom Pharaonic times, the Gnbtyw described as middle men engaged in the incense trade may have been the precursors of the Qatabanians who were engaged as middle men in this trade in the Classic period [IC-026, IC-052]. Within Egypt itself, Saleh defines a people called Smntyw as commercial bedouin agents who acted as scouts and were aware of incense locales and directed Egyptian traffic accordingly. By the Classic period, Pliny refers to routes along South Arabian city state territories. The contemporary Periplus defines both land routes and seaports where incense was collected and sent onward IC-057, IC-011, IC-085]. In early Islamic times, the trade continued to be important with seaports described both in Yemen and Oman connected with the incense trade both to the West and East. Arab dhows collected incense twice a year (September and March). Today, handlers, transporters, packers and shippers collect the material for onward shipment to external markets. Most of the incense is now sent to Aden, Mumbai, Djibouti, Jeddah, and Dubai.


 In sum, by the middle of the second millennium B.C., incense was a Abig business@ and production targeted for external markets to Egypt, the Levant, and Mesopotamia [IC-007]. This material was sent either by well-known sea routes, or overland caravans. Most authorities suggest the external trade peaked in Classical times [IC-25] but it is difficult to assess both the range of harvested trees and the amount of incense collected.

The Naville drawings of the Deir el Bahri reliefs are much clearer than the current state of the reliefs shows. Here, men are scooping incense from large piles. Note the incense trees in pots ready to be shipped to Egypt.

Theban Tomb No. 143, dated to Amenophis II, depicts the opposite situation of the Punt Expedition. In this case, the Bronze Age ships of the southern Red Sea are not depicted. Instead, we see the skiffs bringing the incense and other goods ashore.

The Shabwa kingdom can be seen in relationship to the incense lands further to the east. It was here that Shabwa created its eastern colony at Khor Rohri.

Frankincense fragments were recovered from Qana buildings. They were probably stored in baskets. Chemical analysis of the fragments may suggest the regional origin of the incense.

Hepper's suggested distribution of current frankincense in Dhofar and Mahra can be confirmed by examining ground data in relation to LANDSAT space images.

The South Arabian city of Nagran was the northernmost expression of the South Arabian city state culture. It was the key center for incense trade moving north along the western Arabian spine.

Petra, as the northern capital of the Nabateans, controlled the incense route into the Mediterranean basin. The family tombs cut into the living rock are a testament to their elaborate wealth.