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Trade in Ancient Times

Over the centuries, trade routes have been established that connected places where goods were produced with people living in other places who wanted to buy these items. Often, specific goods such as salt and spices were scarce and in high demand. People wanted and needed these things, so they were willing to travel to get them or to pay others to get them and bring them back. The creation of trade networks involved roads between points, and these roads many times became well-traveled. Not only were goods transported over these roads, but people also shared knowledge, ideas, religious practices, and even illness in some cases.

The Silk Road

The Silk Road may be the most famous ancient trade route. This route connected China and the ancient Roman Empire, and people traded silk along this pathway. In exchange for the silk, the Chinese got gold, silver, and wool from Europe. Not only was the Silk Road used for transportation of goods, it was also the way that people shared ideas, knowledge, religion, and technology with each other. Along the route, trading centers began popping up, which became places where people shared knowledge and ideas.

The Silk Road started in China and followed along the Great Wall until it crossed into Afghanistan through the Pamir Mountains. From there, goods were loaded onto ships that sailed for Mediterranean ports. Usually people passed off the goods to others along the 4,000-mile route, not traveling the whole thing themselves. When the Roman Empire fell in the fourth century CE, people stopped using the Silk Road. It was later revived by the Mongols in the 13th century, and Marco Polo used it when he became one of the first Europeans to go to China. Researchers guess that the Silk Road was a major way that the Black Death plague was passed during this time, too.

The Spice Routes

The Spice Routes were maritime routes, which means they were routes taken by ships over the seas. Europeans wanted spices such as cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and pepper. Before the 15th century, Arabs and North Africans controlled trade between the East and West for these goods, so spices were very rare and expensive. When the Age of Exploration hit in the 15th century, global trade became possible for people to sail for long distances, so Europeans began sailing and making new global trade relationships with people in China, Japan, and Indonesia. The Dutch and English were very active in spice trading with Indonesia, especially with an area called the Spice Islands. This was the only place people could get cloves and nutmeg at that time. The spice trade was responsible for the colonization of lands, wars fought, and personal fortunes made.

The Amber Road

The Amber Road connected the Baltics with Europe. Researchers estimate that people began trading amber in 3000 BCE, because archaeological evidence has uncovered amber beads from the Baltics in Egypt. The Romans valued amber both as medicine and for decorative purposes. Amber deposits are present under the Baltic Sea, and they formed millions of years ago. Slowly, amber washes up on the shores where people harvest it from the sand. The crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries were a time when the Baltic Sea was a major source of income for the Teutonic Knights. The Knights had control of this region, and they persecuted local Prussians if they tried to harvest or sell the amber. Remnants of the old Amber Road are still present in Poland.

The Incense Route

The Incense Route was created as frankincense and myrrh were transported by camel from the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean. Both frankincense and myrrh come from tree sap dried in the sun. The resulting nuggets might be used as perfume or as incense to be burned. Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans began using frankincense and myrrh in big quantities. As trading increased along the Incense Route, as much as 3,000 tons of incense may have been moved along the route every year. It may have taken about two months from start to finish, and there were points along the route where settlements charged taxes to allow caravans to pass through. Eventually, traders began moving the incense by waterways instead of over land, though.

The Salt Route

Salt has been in high demand for centuries. Salt helps preserve and flavor food, and it’s also used as an antiseptic. It wasn’t easy to harvest salt, so areas that were rich in salt became big trading centers. Routes sprang up to connect salt trading centers with other settlements. The Salt Route connected a point near Rome with the Adriatic coast, running through Italy. Salt was so scarce and precious that part of Roman soldiers’ pay was salt. A different Salt Route called Old Salt Road started in northern Germany and extended to Lubeck on the northern German coast. Fishing fleets leaving Germany for Scandinavia during the Middle Ages needed salt, and they got it from the Old Salt Road.

The Tin Route

The Tin Route was a major road from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, making it possible for people to transport tin. Metal-making required tin for making bronze, because it made it stronger. Cornwall in southwestern Britain had tin mines. The Tin Route connected Cornwall through France, Greece, and beyond. Historians discovered the Tin Route because of hill-forts that were built along the route, used as trading posts. There are no written records left to study, but archaeological records suggest that art and technology of the period also moved along the Tin Route.