From the earliest times, humans have harvested and traded resources. Salt is one of the oldest harvested commodities, with salt extraction sites appearing in archeological records as far back as the late Neolithic period, right around the time civilizations were moving from the Stone Age into agrarian societies. In fact, salt extraction is considered a process indicating the step toward organized society. It certainly required coordinated efforts to mine rock salt or collect salt crystals from water sources. Salt extraction also required more advanced technology than simple stone tools, and early pottery helped to advance salt processing. Briquetage was a form of course ceramic vessels in which briny water from the ocean or salt pools was evaporated or even boiled to extract the salt crystals. These were often used in conjunction with large salt pans, or evaporation ponds, and smaller salterns, where more concentrated brine was moved before being transferred to the briquetage.
Eventually, salt brought wealth to regions where it was bountiful, and it became a significant cultural symbol, used in religious ceremonies, medicine and cooking. It was even used in warfare to prevent re-occupation of conquered lands by “salting the earth” to prevent crops from growing. As you might imagine, the rise in cultural significance gave rise to its importance as a source of revenue for rulers and governments. Salt taxes have been imposed in many countries throughout the ages, causing controversy and unrest, such as the Moscow Uprising of 1648, also known as the The Salt Riot. The French maintained a salt tax known as a gabelle for centuries before it was finally abolished in the early 1900s.
One of the most well known salt taxes in recent history was the British salt tax in India. While salt in India had been taxed in some manner dating back to the 4th century BC, this escalated after the British East India Company began controlling ownership of salt lands and revenues in the 1750s. After transferring regulation of salt taxes back and forth between the Company and the British government, the ultimate shift of control to British authorities for salt collection, manufacturing and sales came under the India Salt Act of 1882. This monopoly persisted for almost half a century until Mahatma Gandhi chose to defy the law in 1930. He began what was called The Salt March, or Salt Satyagraha (Dharasana Satyagraha), a nonviolent protest campaign against the salt law and in support of the Indian declaration of independence that he helped initiate earlier that year.
Gandhi led a 24-day, 240-mile march to the coastal town of Dandi. He departed on March 12, 1930 from Sabarmati Ashram, a town near the city of Ahmedabad, and arrived at the coast on April 5. The next morning, he ceremoniously walked to the sea, collected a handful of salty mud, and boiled it in seawater to make his own salt in violation of the salt law and in protest of the British Raj. This symbolic gesture spurred a massive civil disobedience movement with many other Indians making their own salt in protest, as well. The Salt Satyagraha marked a turning point in the Indian sentiment toward the British Raj and began a series of events that supported the broader independence movement to end British rule in India.
The distribution of salt to areas where it was unavailable was one of the earliest motivations for trade routes. Salt roads began appearing in the Bronze Age in Europe, with a number of famous ancient routes surviving through modern times, including the Via Salaria in Italy. This route eventually spread throughout all of Italy in Roman times, but the architectural relics remained for millenia. In fact, the gate to Via Salaria was demolished in 1821. Salt was used as trade currency, and was the motivation behind Roman soldier’s salary, from L. salarium “salary, stipend”, from L. salarius “of or pertaining to salt”, which is from PIE *sal- “salt”. Oddly, the term “worth one’s weight in salt” does not appear until the 1830s, so I’d love to hear from an expert on the evolution of this phrase.
Salt curing food as a method of preservation goes back to at least 3,000 BC. The Romans learned the process from the Greeks, who may have learned it from the Egyptians. Written records from that period list cured hams and other meats, as well as plants like olives and capers. Not only does salt dry the food, but it prevents spoilage and the spread of disease, such as botulism. Dehydration was probably an earlier form of food preservation, but it does not prevent bacterial growth.
-Oldest salt extraction sites:
The Earliest Salt Production Center in Europe, by Vassil Nikolov (2006) [Dating back to c. 5400 BC.]
The earliest salt production in the world: an early Neolithic exploitation in Poiana Slatinei-Lunca, Romania, by Olivier Weller & Gheorghe Dumitroaia. From Antiquity Vol 79 No 306 December 2005. [Dating back to c. 6050 BC-5500 BC.]
-Good Eats: Alton Brown on salt flavor, a caramel recipe, and gourmet finishing salts:
-Salt in song:
– A Dash of Culture
Where Every Story Has Food and Every Food Has a Story.™