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Roman-Indian trade

Archaeological dig shows extensive Roman sea trade with India, at times rivaling the Silk Road

Tue Jun 11, 5:59 PM ET

By ANDREW BRIDGES, AP Science Writer

LOS ANGELES - Spices, gems and other exotic cargo excavated from an ancient port on Egypt's Red Sea show that the sea trade 2,000 years ago between the Roman Empire and India was more extensive than previously thought and even rivaled the legendary Silk Road, 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 the co-director of the dig, Willeke Wendrich of the University of California at Los Angeles.

Wendrich and 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 by land and sea during the Roman era, in part because of texts detailing the commercial exchange of luxury goods, including fabrics, spices and wine.

Now, archaeologists who have spent the last nine years excavating the town of Berenike say they have recovered artifacts that are the best physical evidence yet of the extent of sea trade between the Roman Empire and India.

They say the evidence indicates that trade between the Roman Empire and India was as extensive as that of the Silk Road, the trade route that stretched from Venice to Japan. Silk, spices, perfume, glass and other goods moved along the Silk Road between about 100 B.C. and the 15th century.

"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," Sidebotham said.

Among their finds at the site near Egypt's border with Sudan: more than 16 pounds (7 kilograms) of black peppercorns, the largest stash of the prized Indian spice ever recovered from a Roman archaeological site.

Berenike lies at what was the southeastern extreme of the Roman Empire and probably 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 500, before it ceased altogether, possibly after a plague.

Ships would sail between Berenike and India during the summer, when monsoon winds were strongest, Wendrich said. From Berenike, camel caravans probably carried the goods 240 miles (386 kilometers) west to the Nile, where they were shipped by boat to the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, she said. From there, they could have moved by ship through the rest of the Roman world.

Mediterranean goods, including wine from the Greek island of Kos and fine tableware, moved in the opposite direction.

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