Researchers analyzing the contents of 27 flasks from five archaeological sites in Israel that date back around 3,000 years have found that 10 of the flasks contain cinnamaldehyde, the compound that gives cinnamon its flavor, indicating that the spice was stored in these flasks.
At this time cinnamon was found in the Far East with the closest places to Israel being southern India and Sri Lanka located at least 3,000 miles (nearly 5,000 kilometers) away. A form of it was also found in the interior of Africa, but does not match the material found in these flasks.
This discovery "raises the intriguing possibility that long-range spice trade from the Far East westward may have taken place some 3,000 years ago," researchers write in a paper to be published in the journal Mediterranean Archaeology andArchaeometry. Although cinnamon can be purchased today at any grocery or bulk food store, 3,000 years ago, people in the Levant would have needed to take part in trade that extended beyond the edge of the known world in order to acquire it, something this discovery suggests they were willing to do.
The flasks that contained cinnamon were made locally in northern coastal Israel which back then was part of ancient Phoenicia. They appear to have been designed to hold precious contents, featuring a narrow opening with thick walls. Flasks like these have been found in special places such as treasuries and temple storerooms, the researchers noted.
Namdar and Gilboa explained that the bark from the cinnamon tree would have been brought in from the Far East in a dry form and, when it reached Phoenicia, was mixed with some form of liquid and put in these flasks. Then, afterwards it was shipped all over Phoenicia and also to neighboring regions such as Philistia (much of which is located in modern day southwest Israel) and Cyprus.
Cinnamon mixed in wine?
A further mystery the team faces: What was the cinnamon used for? The cinnamon from these flasks would have tasted "roughly the same as today," Namdar said.
One possibility, Namdar and Gilboa said, is that people of the time mixed the cinnamon in with wine, an idea supported by the fact that the flasks were quite small, whereas wine was stored in bigger containers. "If you mix it with a bigger [container of wine], then you get flavored wine," they said. Indeed, cinnamon is often used in wine-based recipes today, including ones for mulled or spiced wine.