Food for the Gods: New Light on the Ancient Incense Trade

Food for the Gods: New Light on the Ancient Incense Trade 

Edited by David Peacock and David Williams

Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2007. Pp. xiv + 151. B/w photographs, maps, tables and diagrams. Hb. £35. ISBN 978-1-84217-225-4.

This book comprises seven papers of unequal quality. Two papers (those by Peacock/Williams/James and Sedov) are based on original research and provide new and fascinating insights. It is primarily for these two studies that I commend this book to anyone with an interest in the history of Southern Arabia. Before returning to them, I will comment briefly on the other papers. 

Caroline Singer’s The Incense Kingdoms of Yemen – An Outline History of the SouthArabian IncenseTrade provides an historical overview of the incense trade, copiously illustrated, which the general reader will find useful. Oddly, however, she omits from her bibliography any reference to major studies on incense and the incense trade by G. W. Van Beek (1964), Walter Muller (1969, 1978, 1988), WalterRaunig(1971), Nigel Groom (1981), Alessandra Avanzini (1997) and BurkhardVogt (1999). 

In his paper, Frankincense in the ‘Triangular’ Indo-Arabian-Roman Aromatics Trade, Sunil Gupta brings together the (meagre) evidence for trade links between India and South Arabia in antiquity, via Sumhuram/ Moscha/Khor Ruri and Qana’. On the basis of his excavation of the site of Kamrej in north-west India, he postulates the exchange of staple foods from India for frankincense from Arabia. Joanna Bird in her Incense in Mithraic Ritual deals with a particular aspect of the use of frankincense in antiquity. Her survey of Mithraea, of incense burners found there, of paintings and visual elements on ceramics, sheds light on the important quantities of frankincense that must have been consumed in ceremonies associated with this cult. 

In Incense and the Port of Adulis, David Peacock and Lucy Blue give a good introduction to the role of this port (on the Eritrean coast) in late antiquity, and its connection with both Aksum and the northern end of the Red Sea. 
At this point let me mention that the common reference to ‘gold and spices’ in the Solomon/Queen of Saba story, and to ‘gold, frankincense and myrrh’in theThree Kings story is probably incorrect. AsWalter Muller has shown, dh-h-b is a Sabaic word for incense and must therefore mean ‘incense’ not ‘gold’ in Old and New Testament contexts. 

In her Frankincense and Myrrh today, Myra Shackley presents an overview of contemporary incense production – in Dhofar, Hadhramaut and northern Somalia. But like most authors, she does not seem to be aware of the extensive groves and forests of Boswellia in the foothills of Jabal Marra in western Sudan. Incidentally, this resource would explain the representation of typical Dinka (southern Sudan) huts in the Deir al-Bahari reliefs, thus adding to the evidence for the African location of Punt (which, in my opinion, should not be seen as a specific geographical location but rather as encompassing a mythic land situated on both sides of Bab al-Mandab).

Shackley traces a continuity of usage of incense from Roman imperial times to today’s Christian liturgy, and offers some intriguing insights into the modern use of incense. However, it is surprising that Shackley, a high ranking Anglican cleric, should seem to be unaware of the initial refusal by the early Christians to use frankincense in the celebration of mass. 
I now come to the two major studies in this book. In their Basalt as Ships’ Ballast and the Roman IncenseTrade, Peacock, Williams and Sarah James identify basalt blocks in Quseir al-Qadim and Berenike (the two main Roman ports on the Egyptian Red Sea coast) as having been brought there as ships’ ballast. Their extremely detailed scientific analysis shows that about 70% of these boulders were collected on the beaches of Qana’ (Bir Ali) and about 30% in Aden. The ballast was needed because of the relatively low weight of frankincense cargo. Their research sheds fascinating light on the spatial and historical development of this ancient trade, and will certainly open up future avenues of research. 

The other paper for which I recommend this book is Alexander Sedov’s The Port of Qana’ and the Incense Trade. In this he offers a brilliant description of the second most important emporium on the South Arabian coast after Aden. Sedov has been excavating the site for 20 years and has made some major discoveries. His paper is the summa of the site’s archaeology, topography and history. Qana’ is set in a beautiful bay dominated by a huge slab of black rock (‘Fortress of the Ravens’) which is an unmissable landmark, and this probably explains its development as an anchorage from the mid-first century BC onwards. Sedov distinguishes three periods in the history of the settlement. In the Early Period (1st century BC/1st century AD) three quarters of the pottery comprised imported wares (from Campania, Egypt, the Gulf, and a few from India); the material even includes fragments of terra sigillata from central Italy. In the Middle Period (from the 2nd to the 5th century AD) most of the amphorae came from North Africa and Palestine, although some also originated from India. The latest period of occupation (6th and 7th centuries) had mainly wares from ‘Aqaba and Gaza. During its heyday (in the Middle Period), Qana’ covered more than 5 hectares. Large multiroomed houses with a central corridor, sometimes with spacious courtyards, were built along the seashore. The huge temple was probably dedicated to Sayin, the supreme god of Hadhramaut. A synagogue was also discovered by Sedov’s team. In it, a large piece of frankincense was found (other large quantities were found in burnt warehouses dating from the Early Period). Sedov’s presentation on Qana’ will become the definitive description of the site; it is not only a scholarly masterpiece but also immensely readable.

Werner Daum

Author: 
David Peacock and David Williams