Castile Olive Oil Soap, Spain, 2000 BCE

by Jean Kahler, '00 and Alena Shumway, '00


Legend has it that the first soap was accidentally produced on Mt. Sopa, a site of animal sacrifice. As the goat meat burned, fat dripped down through the fire, bonding to lye leaching out of the ashes. The combination flowed down the mountainside and collected in the clay of the riverbanks, where women used the clay to scrub laundry clean. Although soap was known in the Fertile Crescent as early as 2000 BCE, it was used in the treatment of wounds and in hairdressing before its cleansing properties were understood. In the Mediterranean, soap was entirely unknown: Egyptians and Romans used oils for bathing and the Egyptians used natron, a crystallized rock of brine, to launder clothes. Although some individual Viking and Celtic tribes discovered soap independently, it was not widely known in Europe until the Arab invasion of the Byzantine Empire. It took considerably longer for the invention to reach northern Europe; the Celts are credited with introducing soap to Britain in 1000 CE. Although the Arabs used animal fat for their soaps, the abundance of olive trees in the Mediterranean area led to the development of soaps based on olive oil and lye from the ashes of the barilla, a common plant. The soap shown here is Castile soap, an olive oil soap of the region of Castila, Spain.

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